Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her legislative compadres popped the Champagne this week on spending a historic amount of money — in the most secretive process in state history.
I suppose we can all toast to free school breakfasts and more money for local cops. But 5% of the record $81 billion will be spent on items that never saw the light of day until seven hours before the House and Senate passed this bloated budget.
Roughly $3.7 billion in taxpayer dollars were spent on items that only received a scant explanation in a House or Senate fiscal agency analysis made public just minutes before the budget flew to the governor’s desk for her signature.
No debate. No discussion.
For example, a brand new $286.8 million “Make It Michigan Fund” is apparently a slush fund the state can use as a match to access federal dollars. The state kicks in $10 million to get $100 million from the feds to fix some bridges, let’s say.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it.
My issue is that it wasn’t in the governor’s initial recommendation. The Senate’s budget didn’t include it. The House’s budget didn’t include it. It, like $3.7 billion in additional spending, was birthed at 3 p.m. June 28 and took flight at 10 p.m. the same day.
In the past, the public would get all sorts of opportunities to know what was going on.
The Department of Corrections, for example, got its own budget bill based on the governor’s recommendation. The House and Senate had a combined four committee meetings where their own changes were kicked around.
Once the House and Senate passed their proposals, they were sent to a joint House-Senate conference committee.
There, only “items of difference” were allowed to be hashed out. Only items already on the table could have been included in a final document. Unless it had been in the governor’s proposal, the House budget or the Senate budget, it couldn’t be included.
The House and Senate would then take a couple of days before voting on a conference report to … you know … give folks time to read it.
Fifteen other department budgets crawled along in the same fashion.
It was tedious. It was slow. It opened up the process to stakeholders gumming up the works when they saw something they didn’t like.
But at least we all knew what was in it. Lawmakers had at least a weekend to sift through hundreds of pages of spending, ask some questions and flag something that didn’t make sense.
Nowadays, budget bills get log-rolled together into two massive spending bills. Legislative leaders and the Governor’s Office debate the budget in a series of closed-door meetings.
Massive amounts of spending are inserted at the last minute without debate.
The final House and Senate votes follow tightly rehearsed talking points made with partisan spin.
What’s wrong with that, you ask?
A record $1 billion for special pork projects to give legislators some bacon they could bring back to their district — a new park or a fire engine or a trail, or whatever.
Bacon grease makes the wheels of government spin efficiently, but it also makes the whole process pretty slimy.
Bridge Michigan reported that former Speaker Jason Wentworth steered a $25 million no-bid contract for a health campus in his district that personally enriched his former staffer and the local Republican Party chair.
Wentworth also appears to have put his fingers on the scale to get money to dredge out a lake in his district that state environmental officials say is a low-priority project when compared to other needs.
The Detroit News reported on $20 million awarded last year to an unknown “international business accelerator” program connected to a pair of politically connected Democrats. When the newspaper started asking questions, everybody ran away from this stinky pile of pooh.
All of this spending was rushed through this new, fast-tracked process.
Some of this dive into secrecy can be blamed on COVID, when open meetings became invite-only Zoom meetings due to safety concerns.
Today, there are no excuses.
People tend to be more secretive when they feel they have something to hide.
What is hidden in this $81 billion document?
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