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Rick Johnson: In His Own Words

Text of interview with Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson

June 22, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Sarah Morris: Did you consider the land use reform legislative package of 2001 a success? Do you think those problems have been dealt with?

Speaker Johnson: I’d give it about a medium range. The Senate did not move a couple of the issues in the last session, which was disappointing. The ones that weren’t successful in the Senate, we’re going to have reintroduced.

Which ones are those?

The biggest one was the use value assessment on agricultural lands. Jud Gilbert, I believe, has introduced that in the Senate. Jud was part of that in the House in the last session and he also happens to be a very good friend. I imagine we’ll probably get to some legislation on it. Same way with the land bank bills that deal with untitled properties in the city. In fact, I’m hopeful that that will get actually get through the process before the spring session is over.

Are you working on anything else right now to put forth your vision from 2001?

Ruth Johnson, who chairs the Land Use Committee, is working on several things right now. We probably won’t introduce those until we get the report from the governor’s Land Use task force.

In your 2003 article looking back on the legislative plan, you seem to drop two principles -- assuring clean drinking water and protecting lakes and rivers. What happened to those two principles?

Actually, we did some things with that already, like on the water. Ruth dealt with the arsenic problems. Some things have been some things done in those areas. That’s some of the reason. And we are dealing now with two bills on groundwater extraction. One sets up a panel to handle disputes with it. Another sets up a program to identify water aquifers in the ground. I think they both came back out of Senate, or they will this week.

You came out against designating the Pine and Upper Manistee as Natural Rivers?

Actually, I never came out against that act, interestingly, and I haven’t come out in favor of it either.

So you didn’t come out with a position on it?

No, I didn’t think it was a fair thing to do considering the public hearings are still going on. I didn’t think the speaker of the house ought to be making a decision one way or the other until the public hearings have been held. There’s people that print things that aren’t always truthful.

[Editors note: In January 2003, Matt Resch, Mr. Johnson’s spokesman, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that the House speaker opposed designating the Pine River as a new state Natural River.]  

Did you think any parts of the 2001 package conflict with protecting private property rights?

I don’t know if it was conflicting. I don’t know if we highlighted it as much two years ago. But we have a little more this year. You learn a little more as you go through the areas. The trick is you deal with some of the regional zoning and coordinating plans and those kind of things as well. It’s a real delicate area. You have to respect both sides of the issues.

For instance, I met with one of the groups from the Natural River Act this past weekend. They were asking the DNR and USDA about some of these beavers cutting down trees along the rivers, and a way to curtail that some. Frankly, I like to go out and watch the beavers work. My point is there’s always the other side of the issue that people need to think about. People that like to hunt deer, want more deer than the people who are mad at the deer because they’re eating up some of the plants that are becoming less plentiful in the woods. 

You’ve got to weigh both ways on it and figure out some kind of middle ground that makes everyone feel good that they’re able to either see the deer or not see the deer, and keep their plants growing.

Is there any inherent conflict between needs of responsible growth and your traditional constituents, who tend to be very concerned about property rights? How do you negotiate that conflict?

First off, when you talk about building roads. If you don’t build roads, you’re not going to have economic growth.  If you don’t have economic growth, you don’t have the jobs to provide for the young people that are coming out of school today.  Those all have to be dealt with and they’re very important issues. 

On the road issue alone do you know how many go through my yard on the weekend just sight-seeing. If they don’t have a road they can’t do that. You’ve got to have road to have access to the different areas.  And the other thing you have to think about is how you build the road, how the curb cuts are.

A lot of people don’t think about those kind of things. The best example of a city that I’ve been in is Charleston, where you can walk around the city because of the way the roads were designed. A good example is when you look at the angle of the curb on a corner. If that angle is done at too fast of an angle where it makes the walk across the street twice as long, the elderly person won’t walk because they can’t get across the street in front of the traffic. It’s the little things like that, as to how. It isn’t building roads, it’s how they’re built that’s the issue.

Where do you come down on the recent struggle between Governor Granholm’s “Preserve First” program and the Senate Republicans’ “Priorities First” program?

When you’re going to I-75, or the more populated areas, and go in and resurface existing roads,  if you don’t add a lane when you do that you’re foolish. I say that because when you’re there and doing the construction and traffic is backed up and commuters are having problems you should go in and do it so it’s only a one time thing and you don’t have to come back a month or two later to add another lane.

Do you think that we can we build our way  out of congestion?

What I do believe is I’m going down I-96 right now and the traffic numbers continue to rise. Economic growth is stymied when cars sit on the road. It is right now 4:15. I’m going to be at the Novi intersection in 45 minutes and I can guarantee that I’m going to be stopped because of the number of vehicles. Those are the kinds of things that need to be corrected. A couple of projects are the Beck Road interchange, which has already seen service roads built to accommodate that from a county level.

And if you can’t finish a project you’ve started, it’s not going to stop the congestion problems, which means more vehicles sitting on the roads longer, which means more smoke coming out of the fuel pipes which means more pollution in the air. That’s the kind of things I’m talking about. There are a lot of roads that just need to be resurfaced and preserved. There are certain areas that we need to make sure we don’t leave the bottleneck that’s going on, or otherwise we aren’t going to get the economic growth that we should. 

And when you talk about how do you get people back to the  inner city, it’s really three things: You’ve got to have safe streets, good schools, and good affordable housing. That’ll bring the growth back to cities, more so than trying to force them by putting everyone right on I-75, I-96, whatever, in a bottleneck of traffic.

Those are the kind of things that will affect growth, more than where you build your roads and how you build them because people will move to those areas during those kinds of times.

What if it roads didn’t make it so easy to sprawl? Do you think people
would pay more attention — and give more money and resources — to the cities?

That’s not taking place, that’s my point. And that’s not going to take place by not taking care of our infrastructure when it comes to roads. To me, those are the three key issues. If you go to any other major city, in the cities that are really prospering, they have those three key things — good schools, safe streets, and affordable housing.

Those are the kinds of things that bring people and keep people in the city. That’s why I’m such a strong supporter of the land bank bill. That will put those properties back on the market so people can reinvest, can build new affordable housing, and can also come in and build commercial operations that will create jobs so people can actually live in the city and have all those things.

Q:  Do the PACs who have given money to your campaigns, such as construction, real estate, and development at all influence your position on road building and sprawl?

Frankly,  no it doesn’t. Not on road building or anything. And I don’t think you’ll find a legislator that’s ever done that. In fact, I do more things for organizations that I get absolutely nothing for. If that was the case just call Peter Secchia [a former ambassador to Italy and Grand Rapids executive who is influential in the state Republican party and recently criticized Mr. Johnson for his support of casino gambling.] He’s the kind of guy that he gives you some money, he thinks you should vote for him all the time. Well I’m sorry that’s not what I do, I never have I never will. Peter thinks he can buy politicians. Well he doesn’t buy this one. He needs to go back to Italy and be ambassador again.

I would refuse money if someone ever asked me if I did this, or voted for this. That does not have any influence, as far as I’m concerned. It makes a good story, makes good headlines, but that is really so far from the truth. I’ve had this conversation with other legislative leaders.

What is your relation to Richard Wilcox and Wilcox Associates Engineering?

Do you know that Rick’s company is the largest company in the state of Michigan for environmental clean up. If it’s an environmental clean up project, they have the highest standing of doing the project and the job right than any other company I’ve seen. Yeah, they do a lot of work on highways and those kind of things. They do a tremendous amount of work with DEQ, and in those areas. It’s real easy to look at it as what he does as far as road projects, but in reality he does a lot of stuff outside that. Environmentally for one. Survey work as well. And he does happen to be a very good friend of mine, and he has been for 25 years. His home office is in Cadillac. His father started that.

How did you make the transition from a farmer in rural northern Michigan to Speaker of the House?

Work hard.  My first phone call this morning was at 6 a.m.  I’m at Beaner’s coffee shop in Lansing when we’re in session at 6:30.  It’s a known fact that I’m there.  I’m probably the most accessible leader in a long time, that’s just my style.  I like to see the issue before we do any legislation or appropriation of dollars for projects. And I travel from the west side of the UP to southeast Michigan to do it.  I think that’s the bigger reason, I don’t have any magic formula.  You know, I’m a farmer that’s worked hard all the time. I got that from my dad, and I do this the same way. I usually don’t go to bed ‘til 11 or 12 o’clock at night.

Why do you think Jim Maturen [a prominent conservationist who served with Mr. Johnson on the Osceola County Commission] is so disappointed in your environmental record?

All I know is that my family’s planted over two million trees in my lifetime. We’ve built filter strips; we have stoned waterways. Frankly I consider myself more of an environmentalist than a lot of environmentalists that are in Lansing. Do I go out and beat my chest and talk about those kind of things? No.

We plant plants for pheasants. We raise pheasants to turn loose in the wild. We put things in for all kinds of wildlife. Frankly, I’ll put my environmental record up with anyone’s. Our business is raising trees right now and selling them for landscape purposes. We’ve planted probably 2 million trees that we don’t transplant — red pines, white pines, things that we’ve been planting since the mid-to-late fifties. When they start talking about environmental records, I’m talking about someone who goes out and does something.

Do you also push environmental issues in Lansing?

I can tell you I’m the first one that’s ever passed any land use issues in over forty years. So I don’t know how you could consider that a dead end.

What about your low scores with League of Conservation Voters?

All I can say is I haven’t seen the questions. They put out questionnaires right now that you fill out. There’s probably 200 or 300 in every election cycle. You know, I protect people’s property rights. I believe in doing the right thing, the common sense thing. And when people realize that, when people quit screaming fire when there’s no fire, that’s when things are going to get better. 

Environmentally in this state, and this is from Steve Chester the current director of the DEQ. When he came into that position a couple months ago his comment was the Engler administration had done a great job with the DEQ. We have cleaner air, cleaner water, a cleaner environment in Michigan today than what we had ten years ago. From a new director coming in, I’ve got to believe that’s a pretty darn good statement to be made.

 [Editor’s note: Patricia Spitzley, the spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, could not confirm that Mr. Chester made these statements when asked by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.]

I haven’t gone out and beat my chest and said yeah, you know this is what I’m doing. I just do it day in and day out. I don’t have to yell and scream and ask for credit for it. And I think because someone says ‘Oh you’re an environmentalist because you go and stand on a hill and declare that,’ I don’t do it that way. I’m the guy that’s in the trenches working, making things happen and I will continue to be that way. And I’ll take any environmentalist on any day.

Do you think that growth can happen responsibly and not interfere at all with people’s property rights?

Sure, you know they talk about preserving farmland. Preserve the farmer — the farmer will preserve all the farmland in the world. And that has been lost in this whole debate. Agriculture is the second largest industry in the state of Michigan. We do things better environmentally. We don’t use herbicides, pesticides. Do you know I have to put pesticides on our trees by law, in order to be able to sell them. We have to do it, we have to show records of it.  And it isn’t needed in some of the fields.

Those are the kind of environmental issues I’m talking about. 

I’m walking into a meeting with one environmental group last Saturday morning, and here’s a guy on a lakefront lot with a power washer, washing off his treated deck. Where does that go? It goes right into the lake. You know, I’m not considered an environmentalist but I don’t do those kind of things.  I have never thrown even a gum wrapper outside of my car window driving down the road. I don’t drive an expensive four-wheel drive like some of the environmentalists do. When they talk about being an environmentalist, those are the kinds of things which are environmentalist.


Do you think some farmers might be resistant to land use legislation, because they want the right to develop their land?


That is their land and that’s a real tough area. You’ve got to watch where you go, because, you know, it's private property rights.


Do you think that certain issues, such as curbing sprawl, can ever trump property rights?


If you don't protect private property rights, you're going to have a hard time I believe in a lot of the other areas, because that is the first and foremost,  I believe, the responsibility of people is their property. And are you going to always have everyone not do the right thing? Yeah, there's gonna be problems, just like anything else.  But in reality, we still have to respect private property rights, and try to work within that to make things work out.


Do you think that efforts for responsible growth would be easier if people could think about the larger community values over property rights?


The issue is out there more so now than it has been in the past. People are more concerned about environmental areas and issues. That's good and well, but I still believe most people are going to protect the property. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt on that.  To just come in and say 'hey we don't believe what you're doing is right.' If you live by the rule that you leave the land in a little better condition than when you receive it, because you really don't own it. You're just the user of it when you're living on it, I think in the end we're going to be in pretty good shape.


But what if farmers still want to sell?


That comes back to preserve the farmer and you'll preserve the farmland. Most farmers, when they sell their property it's because they can't afford any other way around it. Farmers don't want to sell their land, but you have to make a living, and it's very hard in today's world.  The price for farm crops and products today is what it was twenty years ago.  That's really where it's at. 


Can you sum up your position on sprawl issues?


A: If you're going to control sprawl, that's a hard area to deal with when you talk about private property rights, and how to keep everybody happy.  That's a tough thing to do.  The thing that will help the most is to bring growth back to the inner city.  All cities are fighting that.  Safe streets, good schools, and good affordable housing will bring people back into the city, and that will do more for sprawl than anything else.

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