House panel advances $152 million worth of funding for Michigan projects

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — A House panel has advanced funding for 121 local projects in Michigan totaling $152 million in earmarked spending, with some measures expected on the House floor for a vote as early as this week. 

The selected projects include everything from airport runway extensions to rural broadband expansions, affordable housing additions to water and sewer upgrades.

Others focus on public safety, education or housing, including $2 million for energy efficiency and home repair work for low-income Detroit homeowners, and $1.75 million to demolish hazardous vacant properties in Genesee and Bay counties, including three vacant and abandoned former schools.

There's also $3 million to replace the Livonia Senior Center, $2 million for technical skills training at Henry Ford College, $2.35 million for electric buses and charging infrastructure in Grand Rapids, $3 million to expand a bicycle and pedestrian trail in Adrian and $200,000 for free community Wi-Fi in Benton Harbor. 

Metro Detroit projects that got funding include nearly $4.8 million to widen Beck Road in Novi from Grand River Boulevard to 11 Mile Road; $2 million toward improvements at the Fauver-Martin Club in Highland Park; $654,000 toward restroom renovations at Veterans Park and Hamtramck Stadium; and $480,000 for programming and facilities for at-risk youth in Mount Clemens and Eastpointe.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a series of 12 spending bills that incorporated the projects, sending the last of them to the full House for consideration on Friday.

Joan Kazierski (center) listens to Marsha Heads, fitness instructor, during an arthritis chair exercise class at Civic Park Senior Center in Livonia on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. A project submitted for potential federal funding is the $4 million plan to replace the Livonia Senior Center, which is in a converted church that’s 60 years old and has small spaces, inadequate HVAC and a lack of accessibility.

But the local projects aren't guaranteed funding even if the measures pass the House. Congressional aides and lawmakers expect the bills to be the basis for negotiations with Senate lawmakers over, for example, a possible omnibus spending bill at year's end. Thus, it's far from certain whether any or all of the Michigan projects will make the cut. 

"If it works out, then it'll be a really excellent opportunity to have the federal government help people, particularly in our small communities, and I think that's a good thing," said U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat who secured funding toward 10 projects in her district, including $1.38 million for a new Brighton Area Fire Authority headquarters.

"But I want to put a big caveat on all this ... I have no idea what's going to happen in the Senate. That's still another debate. I'm gonna keep banging pots and pans to get that money, but we're not at the end of the story quite yet."

2 projects excluded

Slotkin said there's "vigorous" conversation among lawmakers on Capitol Hill about what's going to happen to the local projects that they've been advocating for in recent months. 

"This process will put the pressure on the senators," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, whose funded projects included $3 million for the YMCA to build a new recreation building in Ypsilanti Township.

"We're working really hard. Every project means something to a group in the district."

One of the many small rooms at Civic Park Senior Center which are not being used because of social distancing protocols in Livonia on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. A project submitted for potential federal funding is the $4 million plan to replace the Livonia Senior Center, which is in a converted church that's 60 years old and has small spaces, inadequate HVAC and a lack of accessibility.

This year is the first time in a decade that lawmakers in Congress could request earmarks — renamed community project funding — to designate money in spending bills for projects in their home districts. 

Earlier this year, Michigan lawmakers had requested nearly $192 million toward projects in their districts. Each member could submit up to 10 projects for considerationwith the expectation that only a couple projects submitted by each lawmaker would be funded.

Instead, money was allocated for all but two of the 123 local projects that Michigan lawmakers nominated. The two excluded projects were $1 million for an urban amphitheater in downtown Grand Rapids, submitted by U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township; and $2.9 million requested for upgrades as part of the Cedar River Park Project, submitted by U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet. 

“Unfortunately, this project which would have been extremely beneficial to the Leelanau County constituents was not included, but we aren’t going to stop pushing for important projects that benefit our communities across the District, including this one," Bergman spokesman James Hogge said. 

"Thankfully, other key projects across the First District were included, and we will continue to fight for First District priorities in the years ahead."

Some of the funded Michigan projects received less than what was requested. Others received more than what was sought, to go toward overall project costs. Those that were excluded might not have met the technical requirements for the funding under the relevant statute or committee guidelines, but the committee wouldn't comment on individual projects. 

Only one Michigan House lawmaker did not request or secure any earmarks. U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican, has objected to reviving the process, calling for a more "responsible approach" amid the Biden administration's "out-of-control spending proposals." 

Uncertainty in Senate

The 121 Michigan projects advanced by the House Appropriations panel are separate from another $210 million worth of projects intended for Michigan roads, bridges and transit, which passed the House on July 1

"These community funded projects allow members of Congress to direct funding to the most important priorities in their district. It's all part of the responsibility that Congress has to appropriate funds," said U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, a Midland Republican who sits on the appropriations panel. "But there are still a lot of unknowns about process."

Moolenaar noted that the Senate is behind the House in the appropriations process and doesn't intend to "get serious" about it until September, meaning it will be several weeks before formal talks between the two chambers could start.

"Most of us in the House are hoping that Senate will get to work on their appropriations bills, because ultimately, the goal is to provide some certainty," Moolenaar said.

Motorist travel along Beck Road near Grand River Boulevard in Novi on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, submitted a request for nearly $4.8 million toward an improvement project along a crash-prone stretch of Beck Road – a project sponsored by the City of Novi. It would widen Beck Road between Grand River Blvd and 11 Mile Road.  The project will also create 8-foot pedestrian/bicycle paths on either side of the roadway, providing alternative travel options.

The speculation at the moment is that Congress might have to pass a short-term resolution to continue funding the government at current levels beyond Sept. 30 when the fiscal year ends, he said. 

The energy and water spending bill advanced Friday by the House Appropriations panel also included full funding ($375 million) for the cleanup program known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and $8.7 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is $1 billion over the current year's funding level of $7.9 billion, Moolenaar said. 

This level of funding for the Army Corps by the House panel rejects a $1 billion cut proposed by the Biden administration earlier this year in the president's budget. It also includes $480 million toward design and construction of the new Soo Lock for the year ahead.

"We restored and added funding to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is important not only for the Soo Locks, but also for keeping the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes," Moolenaar said. 

The legislation also contains language submitted by Dingell encouraging the Army Corps of Engineers to "closely coordinate" with the state of Michigan and communities in its southeast region affected by recent severe flooding "to identify the source of these flooding events and to help these communities mitigate future flood disasters in this area."

A related project that got nearly $1.7 million was jointly submitted by Dingell and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, for Ecorse Creek, where the Army Corps plans to construct a stormwater detention basin in Dearborn Heights to reduce the severity of flood events in surrounding communities.

New process in place

Many of Michigan's House members welcomed the return of earmarks, arguing that they are more familiar with the needs of their districts better than unelected bureaucrats.

The practice was historically controversial because earmarks previously were slipped into bills with little notice and funded projects sometimes appeared to only benefit a well-connected few. 

The new process introduced rules intended to ensure accountability and transparency. The projects had to be requested and supported by local communities and published on a public website. Members had to certify that they and their family had no personal financial interest in the project.

"I’m just so proud of the work of our local elected officials in Michigan that I’ve been working alongside to identify these funding needs," said U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills. 

"We had just a lot of our very local needs met — from the Troy Community Pavilion/Civic Center project to Livonia with the senior center. In White Lake, we're doing a road and sidewalk construction project."

A cramped utility room in the basement at Civic Park Senior Center in Livonia on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. A project submitted for potential federal funding is the $4 million plan to replace the Livonia Senior Center, which is in a converted church that's 60 years old and has small spaces, inadequate HVAC and a lack of accessibility.

Stevens also highlighted $260,000 in funding for the hiring of two mental health clinicians who will be contracted by the Auburn Hills, Birmingham and Bloomfield Township police departments to help respond to calls where someone is experiencing a mental health issue.

Slotkin nominated a similar project that would provide $1.3 million for the Lansing Police Department to have social workers responding alongside police to mental health calls.

"As our top priority among all of our community projects, this tries to send a very clear message that we need to well resource the police if we expect them to do their job safely and equitably," Slotkin said. "I hope it sends a very strong message that the idea of defunding the police is wrongheaded. "

For this cycle, the Appropriations Committee capped the total earmarked funds at 1% of discretionary spending, which works out to about $15 billion a year based on 2021 figures.

One of the arguments for bringing earmarks back is that they can help build support for legislation by encouraging members to vote for spending bills that include their local projects.

But despite inclusion of their earmarks, Republican lawmakers have complaints about the Democratic-led spending bills, Moolenaar said, including the level of defense spending and the repeal of a provision known as the Hyde Amendment that has long blocked federal funds from being used to pay for abortion. 

"That is creating a lot of problems," Moolenaar said. "It will make the legislation very difficult to pass in the bipartisan fashion you need in the Senate and in the conference committees." 

Meijer, a freshman GOP lawmaker, acknowledged that whether he votes for the overall spending bill will depend what else his community projects are packaged with.

"That'll be ththe less-than-fortunate reality of how life as a minority member of Congress has often comprised itself," Meijer said.

"But I'm proud that we were able to put forward a number of very important community initiatives that are eligible for funding. And if that funding is being disbursed, then we should be getting our fair share here in West Michigan."