Bridge deal can’t be undone, Gov. Rick Snyder says

By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau

LANSING — The bridge deal signed Friday between Michigan and Canada includes language intended to nullify a petition drive to require a public vote on the New International Trade Crossing.

Gov. Rick Snyder believes that even without special wording, a constitutional amendment passed by voters in November could not undo a contract signed in June, his spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said Monday.

“Like any other contract or agreement, it’s intended to be binding and not impaired by other actions,” Wurfel said.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun opposes the public span and is circulating petitions to get a proposal to amend the Michigan Constitution on the Nov. 6 ballot that would require a statewide vote on the new bridge.

In an interview last week, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the state constitution “protects contracts from being amended after the fact from a standpoint of the retroactivity aspect of the proposal that they intend to put on the ballot.”

Friday’s agreement with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper capped more than a year of work by Snyder on the bridge he envisions as a job creator and a key to increasing Michigan exports.

Snyder says a span about 2 miles downstream from the Ambassador Bridge that provides a freeway-to-freeway link will clear a border bottleneck and cost Michigan taxpayers nothing.

Moroun says the public bridge is unfair competition and won’t pay for itself because there isn’t enough traffic.

The Moroun petition drive has collected more than the roughly 323,000 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, Mickey Blashfield, Moroun’s director of government relations, said Monday.

Prohibitions on retroactive laws apply only in certain cases, and this isn’t one of them, Blashfield said.

The Moroun petition says a vote would be required to approve any international bridge the state builds “which is not open to the public and serving traffic as of Jan. 1, 2012.”

Blashfield said the agreement between Michigan and Canada contains “very contrived” wording aimed at nullifying a referendum to require a statewide vote on a new public span.

The Michigan-Canada deal says all references in the agreement to laws, powers or authorities to carry out obligations in the agreement relate to the laws in place when the agreement was signed.

Richard McLellan, a Lansing attorney and state constitutional expert, said the wording is aimed at “assuring Michigan’s continuing compliance with the agreement.”

“Canada has required that, before it commits billions of dollars for the most important infrastructure project in their country, that its partner, Michigan, not be able to renege by changing its constitution,” McLellan said in an analysis of the agreement he sent out during the weekend.

McLellan supports the bridge.

Wayne State University law professor Robert Sedler will be publishing an article making the opposite argument — that if the referendum gets on the ballot and is approved, the bridge project cannot go ahead without a statewide vote, Blashfield said.

Sedler, a consultant to the Ambassador Bridge Co., could not be reached for comment Monday.

Blashfield said it appears that the Snyder administration is trying to dissuade voters from signing the petition or voting on the bridge in November. But he said Friday’s announcements of a bridge deal in Windsor and Detroit had the opposite effect, pushing signature-collection efforts beyond the goal.

The legal opinion voiced by McLellan is flawed, but the courts will decide that, Blashfield said.

“The real question is, does the governor not want the people to vote?” Blashfield said. “It certainly looks that way, based on his actions.”