Beckmann: Real estate could scuttle Snyder agenda

Frank Beckmann
Special to The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder’s executive budget message this week served as a pretty good symbol of his entire term in office – he’s addressed a lot of problem areas while making almost everyone at least somewhat pleased.

No budget will assuage all the concerns of every constituency, but Snyder tossed a bone to most every interest block, raising taxpayer funding for K-12 education, community college job programs, dental care for disadvantaged youth, and money for municipalities that have been accustomed to the state confiscating their funding for years.

But Snyder faces one major hurdle for his economic plan, an elephant in the room if you will, and the Republican-controlled State Senate isn’t giving him much help on that big issue.

It’s the May ballot proposal to increase the state sales tax from 6-7 percent, passage of which would provide $1.2 billion in funding to fix the state’s road potholes and freeway overpasses.

Snyder got bad news this week when a Vanguard poll showed voters split on the issue, an equal number in favor and opposed to the plan at 37 percent.

Poll analysts say an issue needs anywhere from 50-60 percent support at this time to indicate future passage.

Voters are already wary of the plan, angry at the Legislature for throwing the issue into their lap during the 2014 lame duck session. Lawmakers should have addressed the issue by bothering to do a little work and find budget areas for spending reductions.

But it’s another issue, driven by Senate Republicans, which could sound the death knell for the tax initiative and upend Snyder’s budget plans.

Those senators are again looking for enough support to float $70 million worth of taxpayer backed bonds to purchase a new office building for themselves.

The main reason given for seeking the new digs, according to testimony by Senate Secretary Carol Vivendi last year, is so every senator’s office would enjoy a clear view of the state capitol. I’m not making this up.

That’s the rationale Vivendi offered for spending $51 million to buy the Capitol View building, which is about a block away from the current Senate offices in Lansing’s Farnum building.

But here’s where the plot thickens. The Capitol View building is owned by a company run by Ron Boji, a longtime real estate investor who, along with his family, has been a big donor to state Republican politicians for a number of years and who was appointed by Snyder to serve on the state’s Transportation Commission.

Over the past 7 years, Boji alone has contributed almost $80,000 to the Republican state senate campaign committee, the Michigan Republican Party, and the election efforts of Snyder.

Senate Republicans claim their current home is in need of repairs, the price tag for which they place at about $24 million dollars, even as the governor’s own cost analysts claim the real figure would be closer to $11 million.

Even if the senators seeking a room with a view are right, the repair costs are less than half what it would cost to buy the new building.

So the new purchase remains impossible to justify, given the state’s deficit of nearly a half billion dollars and the upcoming call for taxpayers to dig deeper in their pockets to pay for road repairs at a time when legislators can’t find ways to cut their own spending.

The specter of buying the new building from a big campaign donor speaks to the sort of crony capitalism that turns off voters, especially when Boji is also said to be the favorite to buy the Farnum Building, current home of the senators, for about $5.4 million.

Snyder needs help to get the tax increase passed by the voters for his road plans to move forward and his budget.

But that effort is in jeopardy because of the Legislature, controlled by Snyder’s fellow Republicans, who continue to suggest they are unable to make tough choices on its own. Worse, Snyder appears unaware or unconcerned about a smelly and unnecessary real estate deal which enriches one of his own supporters at a time when Michiganians are being asked to make more sacrifices.

Frank Beckmann is host of The Frank Beckmann Show on WJR-AM (760) from 9 a.m. to noon Monday-Friday.