By Jack Lessenberry
The election is six weeks away, and the vast majority of the media attention has been on whether President Obama or Mitt Romney will win the state. But I think that in Michigan, the real importance may be about something bigger.
This election will also determine whether one incredibly rich man can essentially buy our government for his own selfish interest.
That man is Matty Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River. He is 85 years old, and according to Forbes, is worth close to two billion dollars.
But that’s not enough for him. He has spent more than $15 million of his private fortune in an effort to prevent a new bridge from being built. He gave members of the state legislature hundreds of thousands of dollars to successfully prevent a proposed new bridge bill from even coming up for a vote.
When the governor of Michigan and the government of Canada found a legal way to go around this and build a new bridge anyway, Moroun decided, in effect, to pay to hijack our government.
He spent, according to public records, nearly five million dollars to collect enough signatures to slap a constitutional amendment on the state ballot. If it passes, no new bridge will ever be able to be built without a statewide vote, no matter what.
Additionally, he spent at least two to three million more to successfully get a second constitutional amendment on the ballot, one that would effectively destroy state government’s ability to respond to any crisis or effectively change with the times.
Proposal Five says that no new taxes could ever be raised, no matter what the emergency, unless first approved by a statewide vote that could only be held in November, or, again, a two-thirds vote of the legislature. That’s a prescription for disaster that could send this state spinning into default or leave our citizens helpless in the face of disaster. I asked Rich Robinson, the president of the non-profit and non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, what he thought. Robinson said, “It almost seems like Moroun is saying, ‘if I can’t have my way on the bridge, I am going to destroy the state.’”
I asked if he had ever seen anything like this. He said no. The DeVos family did once spend heavily in a failed effort to get a school voucher amendment. Developer Al Taubman did the same in support of a stem cell amendment. But those were for causes bigger than themselves. The bridge amendment is solely designed at preserving one private monopoly.
What‘s more, Moroun has already run $10 million worth of blatantly false TV commercials aimed at getting people to vote for his amendment. Robinson estimates that the Morouns will spend another half a million a week between now and the election running similar ads. The League of Women voters has been urging citizens to pressure TV stations not to accept “specific misleading and untrue ads,” but this doesn‘t seem to be happening here.
So it will be up to the voters to decide whether one very rich man should be able to buy whatever he wants, even if that clearly is against the public interest. If that doesn‘t scare you, I think it should.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.