Investigative
7:00 am
Thu August 16, 2012

Bridging the border: Who decides? (part 4)

Governor Snyder is pushing for a new $2 billion bridge from Detroit to Canada. The owners of the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge are fighting to stop that new bridge. The latest move is to get a constitutional amendment calling for a vote of the people before building any new bridge to cross the border. That will give the company another avenue to delay or stop the new bridge from being built.

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge company, billionaire Matty Moroun and his family, have spent millions of dollars in TV ads and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to build opposition to the bridge. And it appears that’s working.

Some key members of the legislature blocked enabling legislation to go forward with it.

So, Governor Snyder went around the legislature. He says he can because the state constitution allows Michigan to enter what’s called an interlocal agreement with Canada. Surrounded by the Prime Minister of Canada, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and other officials, the Governor signed the agreement to go ahead with the New International Trade Crossing, saying it is needed for Michigan’s economic future.

"If you look at it, one out of seven Michiganders in west Michigan, one out of eight in southeastern Michigan are involved with trade in Canada. A huge percentage. And that’s a percentage we can see grow to create more and better jobs, not just for us, but for our kids. Tremendously important.” (video courtesy Michigan Farm Bureau)

In an online promotional video, the Governor explained why he went ahead without the support of the Michigan legislature.

“We have an opportunity to grow. And it takes several years to build this bridge. So, let’s get this investment put in place. It will employ a lot of great construction people in the meantime and by the time it’s done, we should have much more going in terms of exports and opportunities for Michiganders across our state. And, again, remember there’s no obligation to taxpayers for this entire project.”

At the same time, the Ambassador Bridge company was working on its own end run. It circulated petitions to get a ballot measure to amend the state constitution.

It reads in part: “The People should decide whether state government may construct or finance new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles.”

Mickey Blashfield is a spokesman for the Ambassador Bridge company. He held a news conference in Lansing to turn in more than 609 thousand signatures calling for the measure to be on the ballot in November… nearly twice the number needed.

“We are proud to submit signatures from each of Michigan’s 83 counties. And, that shows that citizens in every corner of our state are concerned about the process of a lone bureaucrat committing us to a $2 billion boondoggle.”

Blashfield says the ballot initiative is not about stopping this new bridge from being built, but to stop a rogue governor from committing the state to the project without the approval of the legislature or the voters.

“It was not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a bridge. It was not a referendum on a bridge. But, the question was: who should decide? Should a single bureaucrat be able to go around the legislature to commit the state to what will be hundreds of millions of dollars of debt and hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer expense or should the people should be able to have a choice of whether or not they believe a case has been made for the bridge.”

A story, produced by Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek, quotes an email from a spokesman for the governor. He calls this ballot initiative, “Another deceptive ploy designed to put the Ambassador Bridge Company’s interests ahead of the state’s best interests.”

He called it all part of the “multimillion dollar smear campaign” against the New International Trade Crossing. 

What he means by "smear" is the $10 million dollars in TV ads that have been sponsored by the Ambassador Bridge owners which criticize the bridge deal.

“But, your signature can save us $100 million a year. It’s a citizens’ petition to stop them from building their bridge unless the people vote for it. Join the fight. Sign the petition. Circulate it. And let them know: no bridge without a vote of the people.”

More ads are coming. According the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, deposits have been placed at TV stations around the state to run new ads, presumably until the election in November.

Political observers say if the amendment passes, this gives the Ambassador Bridge company another chance to run ads to persuade people to vote down the bridge. It will mean a lot of money, even for a billionaire.

John Bebow with the Michigan Truth Squad says it actually makes sense.

“It’s perfectly understandable why the Ambassador Bridge company and the Moroun family are engaging in these tactics. It’s completely reasonable to expect them to fight like heck as long as they can to protect that monopoly. None of this should be surprising.”

Bebow says given the record of the ad campaign so far, he would expect a lot of language which confuses the issues.

But, Tea Party supporters say it makes sense to them. They say a bridge paid for by Canada will still cost Americans. They don’t like the idea of using any taxpayer dollars for a bridge just because it will save time and money for businesses.

Scott Hagerstrom is with the group Americans for Prosperity: Michigan.

“And I think the public is cynical of corporate welfare which this is a project that would benefit big corporations so that they can deliver a product, I don’t know, maybe 20 minutes off of their time?”

Hagerstrom says this issue has become confused by money and politics.

“And no one knows who to believe.”

So, Hagerstrom says if voters, the people, can’t figure out what politicians and big corporate interests are up to...

“I think it’s a logical next step just to say, you know, maybe the people should decide. Maybe they should have the final say on what happens.”

This strategy by the Ambassador Bridge company owners has already attracted 600 thousand people to support the idea of a constitutional amendment requiring bridges and tunnels that are in any way supported by tax dollars be approved by the people.

And, the name of the organization created to push ballot initiative, “The People Should Decide” sounds so logical. It infers: of course the people should decide, because so many are wary of what politicians, office holders, and bureaucrats are doing with the taxpayer’s money.

If the proposed amendment is approved by Michigan voters in November, it’s not clear how it might affect the interlocal agreement signed by the Governor. At the very least, it likely will lead to court challenges which could delay or stop the New International Trade Crossing. That will mean the Ambassador Bridge remains the only viable crossing at Detroit for commercial traffic.