Selling the Bridge

Jun 30, 2011

Our lawmakers are preparing to wind up business for the summer, and Governor Rick Snyder has racked up an astonishing record of legislative success. True, his party has heavy majorities in both houses, and there was a broad consensus that Michigan needed change. But he got lawmakers to agree very quickly to major reforms that faced entrenched opposition.

Taxing pensions, for one thing. True, he had to compromise, finally agreeing to exempt most of those already receiving them. But that he got Republicans to agree to a tax increase at all was something like getting a vegan to eat a hamburger.

The changes in the Emergency Financial Manager law and in the rules covering binding arbitration for government employees will have profound effects in years to come.

In six months, this governor has accomplished more than his predecessor did in four years. But he has so far failed at one thing, something that would have seemed an easy sell.

The proposal to build a new bridge across the Detroit River,  the New International Trade Crossing. The facts indicate this should be a no-brainer. The Ambassador Bridge is old. Canada wants and needs a new bridge so much it will cover all Michigan‘s costs.

Not only that. The federal government will allow Michigan to use the $550 million Canada is offering us as matching money to get two billion dollars in badly needed federal highway funds.

Yet the governor had to postpone a vote on the bridge because he’s been unable to win over most in his own party. To understand their thinking, I talked yesterday with one of the rising stars in the Michigan Republican Party, Senator Tonya Schuitmaker.

Schuitmaker is a bright 43-year-old woman from Van Buren County, a lawyer who also has a degree in business. She is ambitious enough to have been elected president of her county bar association before she was thirty. But she is also very much a wife and mom to two teenagers. Her family lives in the farmhouse in which she’s spent almost her entire life. Schuitmaker is conservative, but not dogmatic. She voted against repealing the motorcycle helmet law, and would like to see more funding for health and higher education. But she isn’t yet sold on the bridge.  “I am not convinced the need is there,” she said.

She also worries that taxpayers are somehow going to be on the hook, despite the governor’s insistence that won’t happen. “He says that, but I hear the arguments from the other side talking about “community benefits.”

Schuitmaker worries that means taxes. Yes, she’s gotten contributions from Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun - a thousand dollars for her senate race last year.

But she doesn’t feel owned by him, and says she is reserving judgment. One thing the governor should be concerned about: Schuitmaker says she “has yet to hear from one business in my district who says that this is crucial for international trade.”

The auto industry isn’t a major factor in Kalamazoo and Van Buren Counties. However, she adds, “I‘m keeping an open mind.” The governor strongly believes a new bridge is essential to the prosperity of the entire state. But he clearly needs to do a better job persuading lawmakers a long way from Detroit why this is so.