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Lawmakers should own their pork

Perhaps the lesson from the Legislature’s massive pork barrel spending sprees is this: Leave a billion dollars lying around, and politicians will find a way to spend it, and not always for the benefit of the taxpayers. That is, as long as there’s no way to hold them accountable.

An extensive investigation by reporters Beth LeBlanc and Craig Mauger of The Detroit News into the Legislature’s frenzied special projects spending earlier this year turned up several appropriations to big campaign donors and other well-connected individuals.

Included were $20 million to a curiously structured non-profit whose founders, a Detroit real estate development firm, are building a riverfront hotel and condominiums, and wanted help cleaning up the site.

Another $21 million went to initiatives linked to two labor unions and a construction trade association.

Lawmakers directed $15 million to build out utilities for a housing development in Salem Township planned by a former Republican state party chair.

A University of Michigan satellite campus proposed for downtown Detroit to support a larger project by billionaire Stephen Ross and the Ilitch family landed $100 million.

These appropriations and scores of others are linked by common threads. In nearly every case, the recipients are also campaign contributors to lawmakers or their political action committees.

And it is almost impossible to trace the decision-making process that placed the taxpayer money in their hands.

The $1 billion was divvied up in private meetings between Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with each caucus getting a pile of money to spend. The public had little chance to review the awards — the final list was not released until the night of the vote.

Even some lawmakers who represent districts where the money was targeted were unaware of the expenditures.

The special projects spending was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote and signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Determining which lawmakers championed which projects is a challenge because of Michigan’s weakest-in-the-nation transparency laws. The legislature does not have to disclose which lawmakers recommended a special appropriation.

That should change. Ethics and transparency rules in Michigan are notoriously weak. If a lawmaker directs special spending toward a private interest, his or her name should be attached to it.

In addition, such appropriations should not be done in the dark of night. Each award should be presented publicly and debated and defended in an open session.

The work also shouldn’t be done on deadline. Once the special projects list is completed, there should be a reasonable public review period before the bill goes to the governor.

Of course, this festival of pork was enabled by the record amount of money that flooded into Lansing this year thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenue and pandemic checks from Washington.

That $1 billion should have been used to lower tax rates, or at the least sent back to local communities in the form of revenue sharing grants.

It’s notable that the influx of cash to the state Treasury corresponded with an increase in lobbyist spending. Lobbyists reported spending $28 million from January through July, $4 million more than for the same period in 2021.

Michigan expects to follow up this year’s $3 billion surplus with $5 billion in 2023.

Before that money is carved up, the state should have a better a plan for its use and laws in place to guarantee a more transparent spending process. Or give it back to the citizens who sent it to Lansing in the first place.

— Detroit News

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