When Even A Billionaire Can’t Buy A State Law

Joann Muller, Forbes Staff

Billionaire Matty Moroun spent more than $33 million trying to convince voters to amend the Michigan constitution in the name of democracy, but in the end, voters saw through his cynical campaign and recognized that the only one who would benefit from the proposed amendment would be Moroun himself.

Michiganders soundly defeated Proposal 6, which would have made it harder for the state to proceed with plans for a new international bridge between the U.S. and Canada just two miles away from the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, which is privately owned by — you guessed it — Matty Moroun.

The proposal, financed by the 84-year-old Moroun, would have amended the Michigan Constitution to require a statewide vote and a local vote before state government could spend any money to build a new international bridge or tunnel to Canada. But the campaign, with its populist slogan, “The People Should Decide,” was never about the people of Michigan. Instead, it was all about protecting Moroun’s private interests.

Moroun, a trucking and logistics magnate worth an estimated $1 billion, takes in about $60 million a year in revenues from his Ambassador Bridge. The new bridge would divert as much as 40 percent of the truck traffic away from the Ambassador, cutting into the best monopoly you’ve never heard of.

The New International Trade Crossing was announced last summer  by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The unusual deal calls for the Canadian government to foot the project’s entire $3.5 billion cost — including the $1.1 billion bridge, all the land, customs plazas and new highways on both sides of the border. Canada will collect all the tolls until Michigan’s $550 million share of the bridge is paid back. As extra gravy, Michigan can use that loan to qualify for U.S. federal matching funds on $1.1 billion worth of unrelated highway projects across the state. For Michigan taxpayers, it’s tough to see any downside.

Yet Moroun tried his best. His campaign flooded Michigan airwaves and voters’ mailboxes with misleading ads attacking Snyder’s “government bridge,” suggesting it would rob Michigan’s children of their future and divert funds that could be used to hire teachers, firefighters and police officers. The campaign repeatedly earned “flagrant foul” calls from a nonprofit watchdog group, Michigan Truth Squad.

Opponents, such as Taxpayers Against Monopolies, countered with their own low-budget ad, depicting an animated Moroun singing a parody of “This Land is Your Land.”

That ad, while amusing, was probably not what convinced Michigan voters to reject Moroun’s ballot initiative. Instead, they were smart enough to ask themselves, ‘Why would a billionaire spend millions of dollars to protect the average taxpayer?’

Despite the defeat at the polls, Moroun is not likely to give up. Mickey Blashfield, a close associate and director of The People Should Decide committee, said: “We are happy with the investment made in this campaign on behalf of taxpayers and the 5,000 families employed by Ambassador Bridge family of companies. Like any family business, we would do it again – and will in different ways – to defend economic freedom and limited government.”