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Michigan Speaker Appears Less Sure On Attacking Sprawl

Johnson now stresses property rights, not land policy reform

June 22, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Office of Rick Johnson
  Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson insists he remains keenly interested in fighting sprawl. But his words and actions, say advocates on all sides of the issue, indicate Mr. Johnson’s ardor for significant policy reforms may have cooled.

Rick Johnson: In His Own Words. Read the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service interview.

Rick Johnson, a farmer and Republican activist from Osceola County who catapulted from political obscurity to become the influential speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, likes to describe himself as a principled lawmaker who is accessible to friend and foe. Most mornings when he’s in Lansing, at just about the same time he used to oversee the first milking of the day, Mr. Johnson can be found at Beaner’s on Ottawa Street sipping coffee and shooting the breeze with whoever comes by.

“It’s a known fact that I’m there,” said Mr. Johnson in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “I’m probably the most accessible leader in a long time. It’s just my style.”

Mr. Johnson’s folksy, even disarming demeanor and his background as a man of the land in fast growing north central Michigan, has proven to be immensely helpful. When he arrived in Lansing in 1999 as a newly elected lawmaker Mr. Johnson helped convince Republican colleagues, who were suspicious of environmental and land use issues, that sprawl was indeed a credible threat to their suburban and rural districts. A year later, while campaigning for House speaker, he talked about the need for new land use policy.

Two Years Ago: A Bid To Be Smart Growth Leader
In April 2001, three months after being elected speaker, Mr. Johnson put the full measure of his personality and political acumen on display. Startling conservatives and liberals alike, he introduced a novel package of proposals aimed at slowing urban sprawl and protecting the state's natural resources. Several modest proposals became law.

Mr. Johnson, who is 50 and in his third and final term, insists he remains keenly interested in enacting more facets of his original land use program.  As evidence, he points to his work earlier this year in helping Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and Republican state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema appoint the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council.

The 26-member council, which met for the first time in March and concludes its work in August, is preparing legislative recommendations for achieving much of the five-step program Mr. Johnson laid out in 2001. "I’m the guy that's in the trenches, working, making things happen and I will continue to be that way," Mr. Johnson said of his interest in land use reform legislation.

Today: Doubts About Resolve
But some Democratic lawmakers and community activists have raised questions not only about the speaker’s commitment to curbing sprawl, but also his willingness to exert the full authority of his post to influence 32 freshmen Republican legislators, most of whom are more conservative than he is. "It's one thing to talk a good story, but it's another to get right down in the ditch and introduce the legislation," said James Maturen, a former state policeman and a political independent who served in the 1990s with Mr. Johnson on the Osceola County Board of Commissioners. "For all the talk we've heard, I've never seen anything actually being done."

"What I'd like to see Rick do as the speaker of the House is to move forward," added Mr. Maturen. "I'd like to see Rick take the bull by the horns and do some of these things he's talked about in the past for land use reform."

Indeed, two years ago during a well-attended news conference, Mr. Johnson described his intent to enact new policies to promote "responsible growth, protecting lakes and rivers, assuring clean drinking water, re-energizing urban areas, and preserving farmland."  Mr. Johnson’s plan for reviving Michigan’s urban centers and protecting the rural landscape was the most ambitious package of land use policy reforms proposed by a prominent Republican state lawmaker in more than 30 years.

"As a northern Michigan farmer, I have a deep appreciation for this legislation," said Mr. Johnson during the news conference.  "Land use and the environmental concerns that come with it will be vital to the continued prosperity of our state. That’s why I have made this a priority for the current legislative session."

The proposed five-step program helped to distinguish Mr. Johnson as an innovator and simultaneously distanced him from then-Governor John Engler, a Republican who’d resisted efforts to rein in sprawl and was coming under criticism from voters in the state’s suburbs and rural areas. With Mr. Johnson’s support, one proposal to enable townships to protect more open space, and another to allow townships to share planning information passed the legislature and became law in 2001.

Today, Mr. Johnson’s rhetoric and actions around land use policy reform have changed substantially. For instance, one of his appointments to the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council is Brian Warner, an electric utility executive and one of northern Michigan’s most prominent property rights activists. And in a January 2003 article for the Michigan Builder, the magazine of the Michigan Association of Home Builders, Mr. Johnson described a new set of goals for encouraging “responsible growth.” He did not mention clean water, or protecting lakes and rivers, two of the central principles of his 2001 proposal. Instead he stressed a much different agenda "built around protecting private property rights, preserving local control, and keeping taxes low." That sort of language —  absent from his 2001 announcement — sounds much more like the rhetoric of free market ideologues, a group organizing nationally to prevent changes in land use policy in Michigan and other states.

New Understanding or Something Else?
In the interview with Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Mr. Johnson attributed his emphasis on property rights to a new understanding of the issues. “It’s a real delicate area,” he said. “You have to respect both sides of the issues.”

Land use policy advocates, however, noted that in stressing property rights, Mr. Johnson appeared to be indulging more extreme conservative members of the House, who abhor any public effort to manage private land. Land use advocates also noted that the speaker has become more closely tied through campaign donations to industrial interests that support sprawling patterns of growth.

According to Clean Water Action's 2000 report, "Spending for Sprawl," Mr. Johnson ranked among the top 25 state legislators who receive campaign donations from construction, development, and real estate interests. In the 1997-1998, and 1999-2000 election cycles, he received a total of $11,680 from businesses dependent on sprawling construction.
In a separate campaign finance report, the National Institute on Money and State Politics, a group that tracks the flow of political donations, found that in 2002 Mr. Johnson received over twice that amount — $24, 650 — from the transportation and construction sectors combined.
Mr. Johnson said that campaign contributions did not have any influence on his voting record. “I would refuse money if someone ever asked me if I did this, or voted for this,” he said.

He did note, though, that he when it comes to land use policy he is more likely to encounter conservative landowners concerned about property rights than suburban homeowners fed up with congestion or pollution. The tacit message: in order to enact important new statutes to curb sprawl Mr. Johnson needs to hear from many more citizens about how runaway growth damages cities and the countryside.

“We had high hopes that he would be a Smart Growth leader," said Conan Smith, the land programs director for the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing, who’s worked with Mr. Johnson and noted the change in the speaker’s rhetoric. "He has done a lot to transform the way the legislature thinks about land use. The speaker really understands the dynamics around land use, particularly around agriculture."
Reared on the Farm, Steeped in Politics
Joyce Petrakovitz, an artist and advocate from Cadillac who has fought for clean air and water in Mr. Johnson's district, noted that the speaker’s view of property rights stems from his roots as a farmer. "Most of the farmers I talk to in this area are very property rights oriented,” Ms. Petrakovitz said. “They don't really see the big picture issue, they only see how it affects them personally."

Mr. Johnson hails from LeRoy, a small farming town near Cadillac. He spent his childhood and most of his adult years working on his family's dairy farm, which has become an ornamental tree farm. Mr. Johnson's public service career began with his election to the Pine River School Board in 1980. He served as an Osceola County commissioner and then joined the Michigan Farm Bureau State Board.
He was elected to the House in 1998, representing rural Wexford, Osceola, and Mecosta counties in north central Michigan which were experiencing record population growth. During his freshman term, Mr. Johnson chaired the House Transportation Committee and the House Republican Campaign Committee, helping his caucus win the House in the 2000 election. 

After becoming speaker he appointed state Representative Ruth Johnson, a Republican of Holly and no relation, as chair of the Land Use and Environment Committee. The new committee promptly introduced proposals to coordinate zoning to better manage growth; make it easier to develop abandoned properties in Detroit; provide tax credits for water treatment devices; enact agricultural tax breaks for farmers; and protect lakes from non-native species.

Two of the proposals – on zoning and exotic species – became law. "The bills that weren't successful in the Senate — we're going to have those reintroduced," Mr. Johnson said in the interview.

One proposal, Senate Bill 0002 that Mr. Johnson supports, was recently introduced by Republican state Senator Jud Gilbert of Algonac. It would allow local governments to designate agricultural production districts and grant tax exemptions as an economic incentive to help farmers stay in agriculture.

Mr. Johnson said he and Rep. Johnson are preparing other land use proposals, but will not make them public until after they receive the recommendations of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which are scheduled to arrive in the House and Senate in mid-August.
Sarah Morris, a student at Haverford College, joined the Institute’s news desk this summer as a Haverford College Peace and Global Citizenship intern.  The Institute and Haverford College established the internship program earlier this year. This is her first article for the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. Reach Sarah at morris@mlui.org

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