Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > Dec. 1, 2023 | This Week in Government: Growing Michigan Together Council Leaders Slam Tax Comments

Dec. 1, 2023 | This Week in Government: Growing Michigan Together Council Leaders Slam Tax Comments

December 1, 2023
Detroit Regional Chamber Presents This Week in Government, powered by Gongwer, Michigan's home for Policy and Politics news since 1906

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, provides members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

Growing Michigan Together Council Leaders Slam Tax Comments; Draft Recommendations Would Cost Money

The co-chairs of the Growing Michigan Together Council, in a recent interview, called comments from mostly Republican lawmakers alleging the commission is a cover for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to recommend tax increases disingenuous and disrespectful even as draft recommendations call for programs that would likely need additional funding.

Republican John Rakolta Jr., Walbridge CEO and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and Democrat Shirley Stancato, Chief Executive Officer at New Detroit, Inc., and member of the Wayne State Board of Governors, in an interview with Gongwer News Service earlier this month said the process so far within the council has been eye-opening and collaborative.

Still, while Stancato and Rakolta took issue with Republicans focusing on tax implications of the recommendations yet to be finalized, many in a draft report obtained by Gongwer News Service on Thursday would certainly cost money. While the draft does not recommend specific tax increases, it does include several items like establishing new funds for various priorities, expanding transit, and providing two years of free postsecondary education that would, if implemented, need the money to come from somewhere.

One recommendation does include a tax change in some capacity, saying Proposal A and the Headlee Amendment should be changed to allow local governments to see the benefits of investments in their community. Proposal A and Headlee limit annual revenue growth to local governments from property taxes but allow revenues to fall at an unrestricted rate. Local governments have complained the 1978 Headlee Amendment and Proposal A of 1994 have strangled their ability to recover massive revenues lost in the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Rakolta said earlier this month the first place he would recommend funding come from is the current budget.

“I have within the council advocated so far that we take an approach of first asking ourselves the question: If we need more money, where would we get it,” he said. “And is the state spending its $50 billion … in the most efficient way possible. And I would encourage the council and the governor to ultimately take a really deep, deep, deep look at how we’re spending our current $50 billion.”

Brittany Hill, spokesperson for the council, stressed the draft was just that – a draft. She said nothing in it is final. However, several of the measures were recommended in some form by workgroups already presented to the panel.

One source affiliated with the panel also stressed the draft is far from a final set of recommendations and is likely to change, maybe considerably.

The 28-member council, created by Whitmer earlier this year during the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference, is set to submit a final report with wide-ranging recommendations dealing with population growth, education, and infrastructure, among other things, by December 15.

Stancato noted the differences politically and culturally among many of the individuals serving on the council and those who have served on workgroups. Although more than two dozen people are on the council, many more served in workgroups that submitted initial recommendations based on the subject area.

“I think the governor really had a lot of courage and foresight in putting it together,” she said.

Rakolta agreed, saying it has been a robust and transparent bipartisan effort. He said one of his favorite phrases is “intellectual tension.”

Still, the council has encountered criticism. Although its meetings have been accessible virtually, one reporter attempted to go to a downtown Lansing meeting in person and was turned away. Reporters were welcome to attend the next council meeting in person.

Conservatives have also criticized the panel as a front to allow Democrats to recommend tax increases to fund infrastructure and schools. Senate Republicans have also been without a representative on the panel after Whitmer didn’t accept the nomination of Sen. Jonathan Lindsey (R-Coldwater) (See Gongwer Michigan Report, July 25, 2023).

Rakolta called the comments disingenuous, saying no decisions have been made on recommending tax increases, and it wouldn’t be the first place to look for resources. He called it “pure politics.”

“That’s the problem that Michigan as a state has had for a long, long time,” he said. “Look, this problem has been in the making for 70 years. No population growth; the citizens and the people are voting with their feet. We’ve got the worst population growth in the country or one of the worst. Our per capita income has declined steadily for 70 years. We used to be 120% of the national average. Today, we’re 80%. Our education system is fractured and broken, and the results are very, very poor. We have slipped from one of the top states in the union to one of the poorest in outcomes in K-12 education. That’s where we need to be focusing our attention today.”

Stancato said the comments on tax increases are also disrespectful, given the work members are doing.

A draft report of the recommendations includes education, infrastructure, and economic development recommendations.

Recommendations include establishing a new school funding formula, which would fully fund special education and capital expenditures in operating costs. A new road funding mechanism is also recommended in the draft, which mentions a miles-traveled fee and tolls for new lanes. It also calls for “changes to the road funding formula to allocate proportionally based on vehicle usage and burden.”

The draft report recommends several new funds or assistance programs for regional growth in high-wage industries, a refreshing of economic and workforce development incentives, a first-time homebuyer, relocation and alternative underwriting incentive to keep postsecondary graduates in the state, a reverse scholarship program to reimburse graduates who stay in the state, expanding state-funded programs for placemaking, helping fund housing development to make it more accessible to lower and middle-income individuals and developing a passenger rail system.

“The recommendations the council is putting forward first look at reforming the systems and demand efficiency and accountability from government at all levels,” the draft report says. “We then are proposing restructuring – designing new systems that serve the interest of students, residents, and new Michiganders. Finally, once we have done the reforms and restructuring, we must fund the new systems in an equitable and sustainable manner.”

House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) blasted the draft report.

“The population council’s current proposal isn’t even a real plan and has no strategy to grow our population,” he said. “It’s just a long wish list for new revenues – tax hikes on Michiganders.”

In creating the council, the governor also established the first growth officer in the country. Hilary Doe, who was appointed to the role, will continue to work after the council disbands.

“I am really hopeful they will present a set of recommendations that are bold, reflecting what we are seeing and provide a mandate and chase implementation,” Doe said in a recent interview.

Currently, Doe is facilitating discussions during the council’s meetings, and she has been working on outreach across the state (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 28, 2023).

After the council submits its report, Doe said her team will go from listening to acting on some of what they’ve heard. That could include building regional growth plans and implementing some pilots while also working on marketing.

As for assets and changes in Michigan, natural beauty and innovators are two big pluses in the state. But Michigan’s population is aging faster, and the 18- to 34-year-olds are leaving.

“I think we really are so well prepared to lead in these areas of high economic growth,” Doe said of green energy and electric vehicle development and manufacturing. “The big challenge we have is ensuring we have the workforce that can rise up to meet them.”

Discussions before the panel have touched on where those who do move are going and why. To that point, Rakolta said the council is trying to do two things: structural change in the state that don’t necessarily have a price tag and will take time, along with tactical changes that can be done in 12-18 months.

“We are limited by many, many, you know, policies and laws that were designed in the 30s, 40s, and 50s for an entirely different kind of society and economy,” he said. “So, there are structural things that have to take place that really don’t have a price tag on them. Those are long-term kind of views. We’re not going to change those overnight. But I would like to see those as part of our report.”

Stancato noted the focus on ensuring the next generation of young people stay in Michigan.

“The data tells us that typically young people are moving particularly for place. Got to make sure that some jobs are there, but the places where they’re moving, they’re not moving to warm places,” she said.

In fact, people are still moving to places like Chicago or Boston. Additionally, she said people aren’t moving only to places with low taxes. Some of the focus, she said, has to be on creating vibrant places with jobs available. Transit is also a priority for younger people.

“A lot of ‘aha’ moments, but and I think Michigan is great, and we have a lot of water, and it’s beautiful, etc., but there’s something that’s missing or something that we are not letting folks know we have,” she said.

As to what comes after the recommendations are made, Rakolta said he hopes the report sparks real debate within the Legislature and with the governor.

He said everyone knows where the University of Michigan is ranked in college football and where the Detroit Lions stand competitively. The state’s competitiveness when it comes to the economy is not discussed enough, he said.

“And if you’re going to make these kinds of deep structural changes that I think you need, you need to get the citizens behind you because the Legislature is just a reflection of the citizens,” he said. “And so, I’m hoping that is what comes out of this.”

Stancato said the state needs to market itself, and she hopes the governor and the Legislature make something happen with the recommendations that are eventually made.

“We’ve got to take these recommendations and make sure that they don’t sit on the shelf and that something is wrong with them on policy and any other kinds of things that we can pass on to individuals and community groups and educators whatever in the state of Michigan,” she said.

Officials Defend Special Election Timing to Fill House Vacancies

DETROIT – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended her decision Thursday to set a short timetable for two special House elections for early next year, citing recent history in special legislative elections, including the Senate race she won years ago.

“I think it’s important that we move swiftly so that these two communities can have representation,” Whitmer said.

Her comments came following a bill signing ceremony at the NAACP Detroit branch office (see separate story).

Recently, Whitmer called for special primary elections on Jan. 30, 2024, to fill two House vacancies created by Democratic members who won mayoral races earlier this month. The special general elections are set for April 16, 2024. Until the special elections, the House will be tied 54-54.

The move caused pushback by local clerks who said there are high costs for running special elections and difficulties with the timeline (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 22, 2023).

When asked why the special elections were not called to coincide with the February 27, 2024, presidential primary, the governor said statutory requirements for the timeline for the elections process were important, as well as working within a timeframe where it could logistically be done.

The governor then pointed to the special election in which she was elected to the Senate years ago, which also had a short timetable.

“Governor Granholm was governor at the time, called the election very quickly, and I think it was a good thing for my community,” Whitmer said.

In August 2005, then-Rep. Whitmer announced her intent to run for the Senate in 2006. Then-Sen. Virg Bernero of Lansing won the election in a mayoral race in November 2005, creating a vacancy.

A special Senate election was announced in January 2006, with a primary set for Feb. 21, 2006, and a March 14, 2006, general election (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Jan. 3, 2006). Whitmer won the March 2006 special election and was elected to full terms in November 2006 and 2010.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters any special election is going to place a strain on local clerks and election workers. She said the job of her department when the governor calls a special election is to ensure the process is followed.

When asked if she had advised the governor regarding whether it should be held during the presidential primary, Benson said no.

“We weren’t involved in the discussions. We just let her know what was possible,” Benson said. “Our job is now to educate voters and prepare clerks to implement that decision.”

Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) also supported Whitmer’s timetable, pointing to former Rep. Sheldon Neeley, who was elected mayor of Flint in November 2019. Whitmer called a special primary election for January 2020, and the general election that year was March 10, 2020, the same day as the presidential primary (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 12, 2019).

“What the governor has done is very consistent across the board,” Moss said.

One exception during Whitmer’s time as governor was in 2020 when two Republicans in the Senate won elections to local offices. Those seats were vacant for nearly one year, with August primary elections and a November general election.

Nesbitt: Work to Flip House Underway After ‘Missed Opportunities’ in 2023

The last year was a period of missed opportunities for bipartisan legislative work, Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt said Monday, with the Democratic majority ramming through a string of policies he believes will hurt Michigan families and businesses.

Nesbitt (R-Porter Township) said working together in 2024 is something he is hopeful for. A sharp contrast, meanwhile, will be highlighted during the upcoming election year in which the GOP tries to retake the House majority, he said in a year-end interview with Gongwer News Service.

On Monday, Nesbitt reiterated the comments he made during the final session day of the Legislature earlier this month. If he had to describe 2023 in a few words, Nesbitt said he would use “missed opportunities.”

“The Democrat majority made a conscious choice to turn far left,” Nesbitt said, rather than working in a bipartisan manner on many policy items. “It’s been disappointing and shameful.”

Over the last 11 months, Nesbitt said the Democrats pushed through billions in corporate handouts, policies that backed teachers’ unions rather than help students, and energy policies that will lead to spikes in utility costs for families and businesses, potentially leading to blackouts or brownouts due to reduced grid reliability.

It was a busy year for the Democrats, who held their first trifecta of full legislative control and the governorship in 40 years.

A string of policies were subsequently pushed through with little or no GOP support.

This year, one major point of contention has been over the triggered cut to the personal income tax, as part of a 2015 law, from 4.25% to 4.05%. Republicans said it was intended to be permanent and that Democrats sought to offset it as part of a tax package in the spring. Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel later issued an opinion stating it was for one year only, sparking anger from Republicans.

Both parties fought over a repeal of the state’s right-to-work law and over the restoration of the prevailing wage, which was signed into law by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in March (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 24, 2023).

Firearms legislation was also passed following the mass shooting at Michigan State University over opposition from the GOP, whose members questioned the legality and effectiveness of the changes proposed. The bills that passed will expand background checks for firearm purchase, put safe storage requirements in place for guns, and enact a process for allowing the temporary confiscation of an individual’s firearms if they could be a danger to themselves or others (See Gongwer Michigan Report, April 13, 2023).

Whitmer recently signed further gun legislation meant to prohibit those convicted of domestic violence-related misdemeanors from possessing or purchasing firearms for a certain period of time (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 20, 2023).

Renewable energy legislation is still awaiting the governor’s signature after it was moved during the final week of session before adjournment for the year. Under the legislation, the state set a renewable energy standard for 2040 with some wiggle room for utilities if there are questions over feasibility. Another pair of bills would move the siting of large solar, wind, and energy storage projects from local governments to the Public Service Commission.

Nesbitt shredded the energy legislation prior to the final votes, saying the changes will lead to higher utility bills for families and businesses, reduced grid reliability, and allowed for the industrialization of huge chunks of the state’s farmland (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 8, 2023).

Democrats also passed several bills removing abortion restrictions from statute, which they said was necessary following the passage of a measure last year enshrining abortion rights in the state Constitution. A Reproductive Health Act was also signed in November.

Despite this, Nesbitt said he is an optimist and always willing to work with the majority.

“I always have my hand open,” Nesbitt said.

There are multiple areas where he would like to see bipartisan work next year.

One of them is in improving government transparency and accountability. He pointed to a bipartisan bill package to expand the Freedom of Information Act to include the Legislature and governor’s office as one example.

“There can be further reforms on FOIA,” Nesbitt said, including making it easier to obtain information through FOIA for the public and media.

Education is another area, he said.

“I’d like to look at ways that will benefit students,” Nesbitt said.

For the shorter term, he would like to see more funding going toward tutors and other supports to help get students caught up, and for the long term, he would like to see additional schooling options available to students.

In terms of public safety, he said more can be done to help attract recruits for law enforcement jobs and training and retention efforts.

To lower infrastructure costs, he said allowing for more mining of gravel and sand for aggregates used in construction is an idea where bipartisan discussions could lead to a solution.

In 2024, Nesbitt said the Democratic majority faces a choice when the Legislature reconvenes.

“It depends on whether they want to work with Republicans or if they want to continue to move on their far-left agenda,” Nesbitt said.

Two House Democrats ran and won mayoral races in November, putting the chamber in a 54-54 tie for the next few months until both seats are filled via special elections.

Whitmer called those special elections the day before Thanksgiving, setting a Jan. 30, 2024, special primary election date and April 16, 2024, for special general elections (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 22, 2023).

Nesbitt said the timing of the special elections being called says a lot, comparing the short timetable to when two Senate Republicans ran for local offices in 2020. Those seats remained vacant for nearly one year, with August primary elections and a November general election.

With the direction the governor and legislative majorities are working to move the state, Nesbitt was confident in Republicans’ chances in 2024.

He pointed to how he and House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) have worked together and the huge sums of campaign cash the House Republican Caucus has raised in recent quarters.

“We both will work to make sure the Michigan House turns red next year,” Nesbitt said. “I look forward to working with Speaker Hall.”

When asked about the current Michigan Republican Party leadership, Nesbitt said his focus was on working toward a GOP-controlled state House in 2025 and a return to a GOP-led Senate in four years.

Nesbitt said he and Hall are focused on making sure their respective caucuses “have the organization, the candidates, the resources, and the money” to be effective in winning back majorities.

For the 2024 presidential race, Nesbitt said he is supporting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the GOP primary.

“I hope we can move on to a new generation of leadership,” Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt said President Joe Biden is extremely vulnerable in both Michigan and nationally in terms of the economy, inflation, the border, and national security.

“The biggest anchor around anyone’s neck is going to be Biden going into next year,” Nesbitt said. “I would much rather be a Republican running for office.”

A key for Republicans in 2024, he said, is to highlight the sharp contrast between the two parties on policy.

Nesbitt said Democrats supported a record budget of profligate spending and being against parental rights in education. He said there will be a history now of partisan voting records that Democrats will have to defend and that Republicans head into next year in very good shape.

‘Adopt And Amend’ Case Tops December Oral Argument Schedule

Arguments in Mothering Justice v. Attorney General, known as the “adopt and amend” case to decide whether the Legislature can amend a voter-initiated law it adopted in the same legislative term, will be the highlight of the Michigan Supreme Court’s December case call.

The case is among 12 to be heard beginning at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6, and Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Michigan Hall of Justice. The list includes the Committee to Ban Fracking petition case, asking the high court to determine whether the Court of Claims properly interpreted Michigan Election Law as divesting the lower court of subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to the Board of State Canvassers regarding the sufficiency of initiative petitions.

Oral arguments are commencing in person, but proceedings will be live-streamed from the high court’s website.

Case to be heard Dec. 6 include:

  • In re Forfeiture Of 2006 Saturn Ion – (MSC Docket No. 164360) – This case deals with a defendant pulled over after a police officer saw her purchase drugs at a house being surveilled in Detroit. Her vehicle was seized in the state-initiated forfeiture proceedings. The trial court granted summary disposition for the defendant and denied the state’s motion for reconsideration, a stay, and ex parte relief from judgment. It also ordered the release of her vehicle. The Court of Appeals reversed in a 2-1 decision. The high court was asked to determine whether there was an issue of material fact regarding the state’s claim that the vehicle was used to transport controlled substances.
  • People v. Butka (MSC Docket No. 164598) – The defendant pleaded no contest to third-degree child abuse involving his stepdaughters. He was sentenced to nine months in jail and two years of probation, which he successfully completed. He sought to have his conviction set aside, which the trial court denied twice. The victims opposed a third attempt, and the trial court denied it because it was not in the public welfare to do so. The Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal, but the Supreme Court remanded and ordered reconsideration. The appellate panel affirmed the trial court. The plaintiff has asked the high court to determine whether that ruling was in error and if the trial court abused its discretion.
  • Bomba v. Bazakis (MSC Docket No. 164652) – The parties in the case are divorced parents of an adult daughter with a developmental disability, where one party applied for Social Security Disability benefits and became the representative payee. The other petitioned the court to split the benefits equally. A probate court ordered an equal split, but one of the parents filed a motion to compel compliance with the order. The court ordered the parent to create a new bank account and provide 50% of the monthly payments, but the Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding the Social Security Act preempts jurisdiction in the matter. The high court was asked to determine whether the order required a joint bank account and, if so, whether that order was prohibited by federal preemption.
  • Stuth v. Home-Owners Insurance Company (MSC Docket No. 165164) – The case involves a personal injury protection benefits dispute after an evasive action crash. The trial court ruled the plaintiff was entitled to the benefits, but the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, reversed, concluding there was not a causal connection between the evasive action and the plaintiff’s injuries. The high court was asked to determine whether the injuries arose out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle under the No-Fault Act, including whether there was a sufficient causal connection between the van that the plaintiff encountered and his injuries to entitle him to PIP benefits.
  • People v. Hull (MSC Docket Nos. 164195/164227) – This case deals with two defendants convicted of resisting arrest and obstructing a police officer following an argument over an outstanding arrest warrant. The Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions. The high court was asked to determine whether a person has a right to resist arrest where an arresting officer’s actions cause the person to reasonably believe the arrest is unlawful and if the prosecution in the case presented sufficient evidence that the defendants resisted, obstructed, or opposed a police officer. Another issue is whether the second defendant, a spouse, may aid in resisting an unlawful arrest.
  • People v. Hurley (MSC Docket Nos. 164608-9) – The defendant was convicted on three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for a relationship with her minor stepson. She appealed for a new trial based on juror misconduct, to which the Court of Appeals remanded the case to allow her to move for a new trial and an evidentiary hearing. She alleged the juror was exposed to extraneous information. The trial court then vacated her conviction and granted a new trial. But an appellate panel later reversed and reinstated the convictions, holding the juror’s comments did not expose the jury to influence that would warrant a new trial. The high court was asked to determine whether a verdict may be impeached based on juror misconduct if the misconduct occurred prior to the jury’s deliberative process and if there may be cases where juror bias was so influential it abridges the right to a fair trial.
  • Pegasus Wind LLC v. Tuscola County (MSC Docket No. 164261) – This case deals with a commercial wind energy project in Tuscola County, with some wind turbine installations planned with the Tuscola Area Airport zoning area. The Zoning Board of Appeals denied the plaintiff’s request for eight variances, and the circuit court affirmed. The Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, reversed in part and remanded the case. The high court was asked to determine whether the appellate majority erred in holding that the requirement of showing unique circumstances inherent in the property is only an element of unnecessary hardship and not an element of practical difficulty and if the self-created hardship rule only applies when the applicant has partitioned, subdivided, or physically altered the property.

Cases to be heard on Dec. 7 include:

  • Mothering Justice v. Attorney General (MSC Docket No. 165325) – Aside from deciding whether the Legislature has the power to adopt and amend in the same legislative session, the case also will decide whether two controversial 2018 initiative petitions can take effect: one that called for raising Michigan’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2022 and bringing the tipped minimum wage up to the regular minimum wage and another that mandated paid sick time for workers (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 22, 2023).
  • Findling v. Malloy (MSC Docket Nos. 165018/165020) – The case deals with wards who were injured in a crash and receive benefits from the defendant under the state’s auto no-fault laws. The plaintiff is their guardian and charged the defendant for various services, some of that were not performed by him or his firm, and the defendant refused to pay for those services. A probate court favored the plaintiff in the case, the Court of Appeals denied leave, but the high court remanded the case for reconsideration on leave granted. The appellate panel affirmed and reversed in part, remanding the case. The high court was asked to determine whether the Court of Appeals properly construed and applied the Estates and Protected Individuals Code when a genuine issue of material fact regarding services and if they were “lawfully rendered” to be payable.
  • People v. Montez (MSC Docket No. 164243) – This case deals with a defendant charged with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, convicted on one but acquitted on the other. Following his sentencing, he appealed, arguing ineffective counsel, but the Court of Appeals affirmed his sentence. The high court was asked to determine whether references to acquitted conduct in the presentence report violated his right not to be sentenced for the acquitted offense and conduct and whether his counsel was ineffective.
  • Graziano v. Brater (MSC Docket No. 164763) – The plaintiffs are electors who signed a petition from the Committee to Ban Fracking initiative petition more than 180 days before it was filed. Canvassers found that 89% of the signatures were collected more than 180 days before filing and could not be counted, deeming it insufficient. The high court denied a writ of mandamus application, sending it to the Court of Claims, which said it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. A Court of Appeals panel affirmed the decision. The high court was asked to decide whether the lower court correctly interpreted Election Law, among other issues, regarding the disposition of the lawsuit.
  • People v. Johnson (MSC Docket No. 164694) – The defendant in this case raped his 13-year-old daughter, who was evaluated by a sexual assault nurse examiner days later for an incident not involving the defendant, and given emergency contraception and prophylactic medication to protect against sexually transmitted disease. Forensic evidence was gathered and revealed the defendant’s DNA, leading the defendant to later issue a no-contest pleading to first-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced to 22 to 35 years in prison. He now appeals the assessment of offender variable points, asking the high court to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred by affirming the assignment of variable points.

James Questions Corps’ Delay on Line 5 Tunnel Permitting

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. John James (R-10) questioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ lengthy environmental permitting process for the Great Lakes Tunnel Project proposed for the Straits of Mackinac, calling it unprecedented.

In a letter to Michael Connor, the Corps’ assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, James (R-Shelby Township) said the lengthy permitting delays, already pushed back to 2026, “raise significant questions about an impartial review process and standards” being used by the Corps.

James is vice chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. He signed on to the letter with the subcommittee’s chair, U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-North Carolina).

“Line 5 is a critical piece of America’s energy infrastructure and supports the supply chain for the Great Lakes region and beyond,” the two representatives wrote. “Unfortunately, in recent years, Line 5 has been the undeserving target of radical anti-energy groups and state-level politicians who want to shut it down.”

Senate Republicans had similar complaints in October. After the Senate GOP sent its own letter, the Army Corps said in a statement it consulted with Enbridge on the schedule for an impact statement, and the current one represents a realistic timeline for development based on the studies and consultation necessary (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Oct. 18, 2023).

Enbridge Energy signed an agreement with the state in 2018 for the proposed tunnel project to move Line 5 under the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinac.

Since then, environmental groups have bashed the project and the existing Line 5 as environmental disasters waiting to happen, while Enbridge and project supporters have called it an important piece of critical energy infrastructure.

In April 2020, Enbridge began the permit application process, with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in early 2021 announcing it would approve the company’s applications for permits (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Jan. 29, 2021).

Enbridge’s initial timeline for construction and completion of the project in 2021 was to begin construction in 2024, with the environmental impact statement from the Corps coming by fall 2023. In March 2023, the Corps said it would be extending that deadline until 2026. Lawsuits filed by the state to block the project have also so far been unsuccessful.

“Overall, the Corps appears to be planning to take six years to review and process the GLTP’s application, despite that the project is only four and a half miles long, designed to pose less risk to navigable waters than the current pipeline housed on the lakebed in the Straits,” the congress members wrote. “Efforts to slow the progress of this important safety improvement defy logic.”

The letter also says the delays appeared to have been developed prior to and during the first step of completing the proposed project, adding that important infrastructure projects cannot afford to be bogged down in lengthy regulatory processes.

James and Rouzer also pointed to the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, which included requirements for a two-year timeline for completing environmental impact statements.

“Delays of up to six years for completion of an EIS is unacceptable,” the two wrote.

The two also requested a staff-level briefing on the status of the environmental review process for the tunnel project by Dec. 13.

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