The headline from the Lansing Regional Chamber press release looks innocuous enough: “Coleman Road Extension Receives State Funding.”
But the $7.6 million that Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers snuck into last year’s budget at the last minute to relieve pressure on dreadfully congested Lake Lansing Road by Eastwood Towne Center was anything but pedestrian.
For southern Clinton County and northern Ingham County to receive a special carveout to extend Coleman Road across Highway 127 to Wood Road took a marked piece of legislative deal-making, persistence and, yes, some politics.
First of all, the Michigan state budget isn’t like the pork-stuffed federal budget with its mythical $37 screws, $640 toilet seats and a $7,622 coffee maker.
Michigan is constitutionally required to balance its budget every year, which means legislators don’t have much appetite to slide special projects into the $56 billion document. This year, legislative leaders divvied up $52 million in legislative pork for the entire state.
For perspective, it’s like making $56,000 a year and having $52 a year in “fun money.” It’s .09 percent of the state budget. Unlike Congress, lawmakers are extremely judicious about who got what.
This year’s 78 projects were — almost without exception — for districts represented by outgoing term-limited Senate leadership and first-term Republican senators and House members running for re-election in competitive seats.
The Lansing area doesn’t fall into either category. The three returning Democratic senators scored a few bucks for their district, which explains why they voted “yes” on the budget. Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, got $100,000 for the Cristo Rey Community Center, for example.
Nobody else got $7.6 million for a special project. In fact, no other single project received half of what Coleman Road did. Beal City received $3 million for some infrastructure redo and Traverse City $2.4 million for its extensive recreation trail system. Otherwise, more than 75 percent of the projects were less than $1 million with, again, a lot going to the politically competitive areas of Monroe, Kalamazoo, Plymouth/Canton and Utica/ Sterling Heights.
The Coleman Road money was an anomaly in both dollar amount and in geographic location. So how did it happen?
The simple answer must be that House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, worked some magic, right? The Coleman Road extension is in his House district. He must made it rain for his hometown folks, right?
Wrong. Leonard, behind the scenes, wanted nothing to do with the money. The hard-right attorney general candidate needs support from traditionally conservative, no-fat-in-budget Republican delegates.
Leonard prides himself on passing slim state budgets, and he wasn’t altering his reputation two months before a GOP convention that’d determine his political fate.
Instead, longtime friend Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, stepped in front of Leonard to get his name attached to the project on the House side. The 24th state Senate candidate is looking to score points among Clinton County officials, who’ve wanted Coleman Road extended for at least 10 years as an economic development draw.
Then there’s the current state senator from that area, Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. During his 14 years in the Legislature, Jones has taken the lead on dozens of public policy initiatives, but he doesn’t dabble much in appropriations.
Clinton County commissioners lionized Jones for his assistance on another matter and returned to the term-limited lawmaker with one final request. Coleman Road.
So, Jones asked the House Appropriations Committee leader. The answer was no. The state’s roads, particularly in Macomb County and Monroe counties, are terrible. How can a $7.6 million special development project in Clinton County be justified?
Jones is many things, and persistent is one of them. He tried numerous political angles to soften up his leadership to allow the money to go through until he got them to “maybe.”
A final push was needed, which brings us to the final piece of the story: House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, and Gov. Rick Snyder.
Last year, the governor was heavily courting FoxConn Technology Group from Taiwan and saw a proposed business tax incentive package known as “Good Jobs” as a critical component. Leonard and House Republican leadership — leery of special tax carveouts — was pushing back.
Snyder needed House Democratic support and went to Singh, who saw a negotiating opportunity. Singh agreed to support “Good Jobs” and urge his caucus to do likewise if Snyder did something for him. Coleman Road.
Singh knows the headache of driving Lake Lansing Road to Eastwood and convinced the governor that there’s regional economic benefit of another east-west corridor over U.S. 127.
Fast-forward to last month when the governor and legislative leaders carved up the $50 million special projects pie. Snyder’s folks dedicated three-quarters of his $10 million allocation to fulfill his promise to Singh.
So, yes, a Coleman Road bridge is being built over U.S. 127 soon, but it took a bipartisan bridge to make it happen.
(Kyle Melinn of the Capital Area News Service MIRS is at firstname.lastname@example.org)