Commentary: A Moroun Amendment?

Apr 23, 2012

You have to give Matty Moroun, the 84-year-old owner of the Ambassador Bridge, credit for something. To steal the old Timex watch slogan, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

When the courts told him to live up to an agreement he made with the state about road improvements around the bridge, known as the Gateway project, he ignored the judge’s orders for two years.

After he was finally tossed in jail in January, he still failed to comply until a judge took the project away from him and made him pay the state to do it right. He appealed that, but the Michigan Court of Appeals turned him down. Now he’s appealing again, to the state supreme court. And though he is likely to lose again, Matty Moroun is a full employment act for a phalanx of lawyers.

It’s pretty clear that Moroun is losing on Gateway. But there’s another battle that means much more to him, and so far he’s winning that one. He desperately wants to prevent a second bridge from being built. Governor Snyder, the government of Canada, and virtually every business interest wants and needs a second bridge.

But thanks to heavy campaign contributions to the Michigan legislature, Moroun has prevented a bridge bill from even coming to a vote. However, the governor is now exploring ways to build a New International Trade Crossing without involving the legislature.

Since construction would cost the taxpayers nothing, the governor can probably do that legally. But in an attempt to head this off, Moroun sprung a surprise late last week: His Detroit International Bridge Company, which runs the Ambassador Bridge, announced it would try to get a state constitutional amendment on the ballot this November. The amendment would say that the state couldn’t build any new bridge or tunnel without a statewide popular vote.

Getting an amendment on the ballot won’t be cheap. Phil Power, the founder of the non-partisan Center for Michigan, estimates getting enough signatures by the July deadline would cost Moroun at least $2.6 million.

Add to that legal and advertising fees. Then there would be more expenses for the fall campaign -- millions more, if he wants to win. It’s not clear, however, if it would pass or if it would even work, if, as many expect, the governor gets a new bridge underway before then. We usually don’t allow ex post facto laws.

There’s also something else to consider. In a column in the forthcoming issue of the Center for Michigan’s magazine, Bridge, Power asks, “should a measure designed to protect a privately held monopoly from competition be inserted,” into our state constitution?

Well, of course it shouldn’t be, and doing so would cheapen and demean the constitution. But Matty Moroun has, I suppose, every right to try. Nobody can say he hasn’t been tenacious in his efforts to protect his monopoly. But what bothers me is that the people have a right to be protected, too. Allowing a private monopoly total control over the nation’s most financially important border crossing is bad public policy at best and highly dangerous at worst.

Protecting us from such situations is what leaders are for.

I just wish Michigan had a few more of those.