Snyder puts muscle into public bridge

Governor uses office to twist lawmaker arms, combat opposition campaign by Ambassador owners

Paul Egan / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder is using more than his bully pulpit as he pushes to get the Legislature to approve a new public bridge across the Detroit River.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun has paid nearly $5 million in Michigan alone for TV ads opposing the bridge, which have garnered lots of attention.

But if billionaire Moroun is a Goliath in the bridge battle, Snyder and the powers he wields are no David.

“It’s hard for an individual to fight against the government,” said state Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, at a recent legislative hearing.

Snyder has staked considerable political capital on the bridge project by endorsing it in January and bucking the trend in his Republican party. And last week at a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids the governor said the bridge “ultimately is about jobs and international trade” and he’s focused on presenting the facts and countering misinformation.

His decision early this year to move the bridge project out of the Michigan Department of Transportation and into the governor’s office offered a signal of the project’s importance.

Just as Snyder discarded the Detroit River International Crossing moniker and helped rechristen the project the New International Trade Crossing, his shift in who spearheads it helped mollify GOP lawmakers unhappy with MDOT’s handling of the project and concerned about the department spending more public money unless and until lawmakers give the green light.

Moroun’s son Matthew, vice chairman of the company that owns the Ambassador, won’t say how much his family has spent fighting the public bridge. But he said it’s less than $10 million.

The state Transportation Department has spent $42 million on the bridge project from 2002 through early 2011, including $6.1 million in-house and $35.9 million on outside costs such as consultants, according to a report the department sent the Legislature at the end of March.

“We’re a profitable business, but we don’t have the state’s Treasury,” Moroun told The News.

Still, the state money was largely spent on engineering issues, not on a public relations campaign such as the one the Morouns are waging.

Calley takes the lead

To combat that, Snyder called on his energetic lieutenant governor, Brian Calley — who pushed through controversial budget changes that included a tax on public pensions.

Calley, like Snyder, has been meeting with GOP senators and House members individually and in small groups. He’s teamed up with supportive lawmakers to hold town hall meetings about the bridge in Macomb, Jackson and Kent counties.

Calley recently held his first “telephone town hall meeting” about the bridge with 22,000 participants in Oakland County. More events are planned, he said.

Calley said he talks about the bridge wherever he goes: “The idea is to reach as many people as we can with what the truth is.”

Snyder has used his communications office to trumpet support for the bridge, issuing news releases detailing support from various business groups and former governors.

Calley acknowledged lobbyists for businesses that want a new public bridge also are putting pressure on lawmakers.

“The business community support that we have had on this project has been so enthusiastic and very ambitious in going out there and handling their own communication efforts,” he said.

Support a murky issue

The Morouns have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to state lawmakers over the past two to three years. Matthew Moroun said the family his always made significant political donations, but he conceded the amounts the Morouns spend on political giving and lobbying have increased as a result of the bridge battle.

Snyder refused to accept campaign money from political action committees as a way of showing he is not beholden to special interests.

But he recently set up his own PAC, called “One Tough Nerd.” His spokeswoman, Sara Wurfel, said the bridge was not the reason Snyder set up the PAC, which can make donations to lawmakers, but the bridge issue will involve tough votes of the type Snyder wants to support.

Moroun, who uses the Lansing lobbying firm Karoub Associates as well as in-house lobbyist Mickey Blashfield, complained the media has focused on how much his family is spending but said the bridge proponents have lacked financial transparency. Blashfield is not registered as a lobbyist and Monday said he does not believe he is required to do so.

Tom Shields of Marketing Resource Group, the main spokesman for the New International Trade Crossing, would not say Monday who is paying for the work he does.

He said several businesses that rely on international trade put money into a nonprofit organization that is paying for his work. He knows the identities of some of the companies but not all of them, he added. The group has spent “zero” on advertising, aside from a website, a few T-shirts and some lapel buttons, he said.

The main pro-bridge lobbyist is Public Affairs Associates of Lansing, but as with Karoub, it isn’t possible to tell from state lobbying reports how much the firm has spent lobbying on the bridge issue.

Snyder may hold trump

Snyder, who initially wanted the Legislature to vote on a public authority to oversee the bridge project by the end of June, now wants lawmakers to act by the end of October.

The Senate Economic Development Committee that is handling the bridge bills is not expected to vote on them before Oct. 26.

If the committee moves the bills to the floor of the Legislature, that’s when the real horse-trading for votes might begin.

Lawmakers said there’s been talk of combining the bridge authority bill with a bill that would provide for bridge and road repairs in lawmakers’ districts, with the theory being such a bill would make it tougher for any lawmaker to vote no.

Calley said he’s not aware of such a bill, but the linkage is a natural one because the $550 million fronted by Canada to pay Michigan’s share of the bridge project is expected to leverage $2.2 billion in federal money that can be spent on roads and bridges statewide.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, who chairs the Senate committee, said Calley “raised some eyebrows” when he said in August the government has other ways of building an international bridge than going through the Legislature.

Having the federal government take over the project or Snyder issuing an executive order are seen as the two most likely alternatives.

Calley said he was answering a reporter’s question when he made the remark about alternatives to building the bridge and denied he was sending a tactical message to lawmakers that they shouldn’t try to play their hands too strongly. He said the preferred option is approving the bridge through the Legislature.