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Opponents: Michigan spending bill includes $37 million for 'pet projects'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A $312 million spending bill on its way to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk will help Michigan fight the coronavirus, but it includes $37 million for what opponents call "pet projects."

The 85 projects — labeled as recipients of "enhancement grants" — include renovating bathrooms at an events center in Plymouth, an "elevator replacement" for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, $1 million for the North American International Auto Show and $250,000 for a gathering of state lawmakers from around the Midwest.

The bill has been quite popular with Michigan legislators, many of whom will see projects take place in their districts. The House first approved the bill Tuesday. The Senate approved it Thursday. Combined, 137 lawmakers voted for it while eight voted against it.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attracts a crowd of journalists as she sits in the drivers seat of a Chevy Bolt ev at the North American International Auto Show on Tuesday, January 15, 2019 at Cobo Center in Detroit. The show opens to the public on Saturday.

"All of the pet projects should be stripped out of this supplemental budget and should be considered through the normal budget process," argued Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, on Thursday. "Supplemental bills like this are a large part of the reason that people have a huge mistrust in government.

"Lansing has a spending problem, and this is a perfect example."

But Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, denied the allegation that the $37 million is "pork." Hertel said the bill would fund public safety, economic development and talent investment.

"Anybody who's looked at the stock market should know that we need investment right now in economic development," Hertel told reporters. "These are all important things for Michigan."

On Thursday, stocks faced their worst losses since the Black Monday crash of 1987 amid concerns about the spreading coronavirus, according to the Associated Press.

The virus, which has caused 36 deaths in the United States and has led to the cancellation of large events and in-person university classes in Michigan, was a focus of the supplemental spending bill approved by the Legislature on Thursday.

The bill also aimed to resolve lingering budget feuds leftover from the fall when Whitmer vetoed $947 million in initiatives from the GOP-controlled Legislature's $59.9 billion budget plan.

For example, the new bill would provide $16 million for the Pure Michigan tourism campaign, which previously received more than $37 million a year before being temporarily eliminated by a veto.

But the supplemental includes $37 million for "enhancement grants" for 85 projects across the state.

Among the most expensive are $2.5 million for a water line replacement in Clare, $2 million for the Detroit Zoo's Great Lakes Center for Nature, $1.5 million for repaving Old Mission Road in the Traverse City area and $1 million for the North American International Auto Show, according to an analysis by the House Fiscal Agency.

Also on the list are $500,000 for elevator replacement for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and $250,000 for the Plymouth Cultural Center.

The funds will replace the two main public elevators in the orchestra's music center. The elevators' hydraulic systems were installed in 2003. They will be replaced with "sustainable, energy efficient, modern elevators," said Matt Carlson, director of communications for the orchestra.

"We asked the state because it's a public safety issue and it also supports accessibility for those with disabilities," Carlson added.

Italian conductor Jader Bignamini leads the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal after being named DSO's new music director.

The Plymouth Cultural Center is a city-owned facility that hosts business meetings, civic clubs, wedding receptions and other events, according to the city's website. Paul Sincock, Plymouth city manager, said the $250,000 would be used to make the building's public restrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sincock said the city has lost $8 million to revenue sharing cuts over the last 15 years and worked through State Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, to get the funding in the spending bill.

“All of these projects are needs that just aren’t going to be funded through a local process," Sincock said.

Similarly, the spending bill will provide $175,000 for the Ingham County Sheriff's Office for "body scanners." Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth said he was contacted by Sen. Hertel about any immediate needs the sheriff's department had and the office wanted a new body scanner to screen inmates coming into the facility.

"He notified me on Tuesday that it was approved for the state budget," Wrigglesworth said. "Every jail's got one, and we need a new one desperately."

The supplemental has $250,000 to help put on a Council of State Governments conference in Detroit later this year. Michael McCabe, director of the Midwestern office of the Council of State Governments, said the conference is an annual of convention of legislators from 11 Midwestern states. This year, it occurs in Detroit.

Each host state decides for itself how to fund the event, McCabe said. Many choose to make allocations from their budgets.

The conference "is really an opportunity for legislators from around the region to learn from each others’ experience and share best practices," he said.

During a Thursday speech on the Senate floor, Bumstead argued that there are some "very good ideas" in the spending bill. But he said the projects getting taxpayer dollars hadn't been vetted through the normal budget process.

"Unfortunately, we're acting more like our counterparts in Washington, D.C., in including special district specific projects that have not gone through any sort of vetting process and will cost Michigan taxpayers millions of their hard-earned dollars," Bumstead said.

Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, was one of the no votes in the House. There are budget items that remain unresolved from last year and that were left out of the new spending bill, Miller said.

"I was also frustrated about a complacency over the pork in the supplemental," he added. "Our voters didn't elect any of us to come to do that."

However, Hertel said the spending bill includes $4 million for a behavioral health pilot project at a hospital in his district, which he argued isn't "pork."

"When it's in other people's districts, it's really easy for people to point it and call it that," Hertel said.