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Johnson to Granholm: My Way Is The Highway

In Lansing, three strong women scrap over transportation

June 29, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Rapid

In Grand Rapids and its suburbs voters by wide margins in 2000 and 2003 raised property taxes to finance significant improvements in the region’s public transit system. The city just opened a $22 million transit station downtown.

State Senator Shirley Johnson of Troy, the conservative chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been in the Legislature for 23 years - so long that she began her career as a state lawmaker when her party still had moderates and her county didn’t have huge traffic jams. Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who was born in Canada, raised in California, and entered Michigan politics from a base in Wayne County, governs as a centrist Democrat and is pursuing an economic development strategy built in part on rebuilding cities, fixing highways instead of building new ones, and funding public transportation. Gloria J. Jeff, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, is an African-American planner and engineer who was raised in Detroit, served as a senior executive in the Federal Highway Administration under President Bill Clinton, and returned home to help the governor establish a 21st-century transportation system.

Ever since January 2003, when Ms. Granholm took office, these three policy makers - the most ambitious, influential, and dominant women who have ever governed a major industrial state - have been locked in a rivalry rooted in money and power. The overarching issue is how to close a third straight year of billion-dollar deficits. The immediate question is how best to spend roughly $3 billion - $2 billion in state-generated revenue and $1 billion in federal money - each year for transportation. Before Friday, when lawmakers are expected to take a brief summer break, the Republican-led state Senate may vote on a package of six bills, all authored by Senator Johnson, that would wrest control of MDOT planning and budgeting for highways and public transit from the governor and the transportation director she appointed and transfer it to the Legislature.

In conventional political terms, it is not unusual for a lawmaker from one party to try to gain ground on a popular leader from the other. But what is strikingly different is the spectacle of three women manifesting their power so thoroughly and, in Senator Johnson’s case, so ruthlessly. The three are birthing a new kind of feminine political duel in Lansing, one that is suffused with ideological, generational and, some observers say, even racial overtones.

A Trio Unlike Any Other in Michigan
The theater generated by the willowy blonde liberal governor, the stubborn and shrewd conservative lawmaker who may want to be governor, and the stern and technically adept transportation chief has been the talk of Lansing. During Ms. Jeff’s confirmation last year, Senator Johnson personally attacked her, saying she "didn’t appreciate the attitude" and promised to vote against her. After Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema intervened, Ms. Johnson relented and voted for Ms. Jeff’s appointment. Later, however, Ms. Johnson proposed cutting $10,000 from the MDOT director’s salary and wanted to levy financial penalties on Ms. Jeff herself, not her agency, for delays in producing a report that was actually launched under former Republican Governor John Engler.

Then, earlier this year, during a Senate Appropriations hearing, Senator Johnson questioned Ms. Jeff so harshly that even her Republican colleagues were noticeably embarrassed and said afterwards that she’d gone too far. The Detroit Free Press wrote an editorial chiding the senator for displaying such disrespect. Ms. Johnson persisted, though, in making a point about who had the power and sponsored a bill (Senate Bill 1082) that would essentially strip Ms. Jeff of her privilege to drive her state vehicle home. Among that measure’s nine Republican co-sponsors is Majority Leader Sikkema.

The three actors in this highly public power play are choosing not to talk about it publicly. Neither Senator Johnson nor her chief of staff responded to repeated phone requests for interviews. During an interview, Ms. Jeff declined to answer questions about the senator’s tactics. Governor Granholm also did not respond to interview requests.

To some extent, the situation resembles last year’s struggle over the transportation budget, which the three women fought to a draw. Ms. Granholm was elected in large part because she promised to help rebuild cities and curb congestion and sprawl in the suburbs, and look hard at state spending on new suburban roads, which she said hurt cities and subsidize sprawl. In April 2003, the governor and Ms. Jeff proposed halting funding for 34 new highway projects, 10 of them in Oakland County, and using that money to pay for a larger repair program for Michigan’s badly deteriorated highway system.

Senator Johnson, who had already chided Governor Granholm for not selling the state-supported gubernatorial vacation home on Mackinac Island and attacked her first budget as a "house of cards," leaped into the road fight with gusto. While negotiating an agreement that re-funded half of the projects, the senator let it be known that she was eager to be the Legislature’s loudest Granholm critic.

While Ms. Johnson wields immense power over most state spending, her favorite target is the MDOT public transit budget. Not since the 1970s and moderate Republican William G. Milliken has a Michigan governor been as sweet on public transit as Governor Granholm. Transit budgets have slipped to close the deficit, but not as much as they might have without her. Today, annual ridership numbers are increasing for many transit agencies. Last year they grew by 200,000 in Grand Rapids; ridership more than doubled to nearly 9 million for Lansing’s excellent system since 1998, and have increased for the past 16 straight months, to 37,000 passengers per day, for suburban Detroit’s SMART system.

Ms. Granholm is the first Michigan governor to embrace a "fix-it-first" highway construction philosophy aimed at improving the system, saving money, and slowing sprawl. Last summer her transportation policy was heartily endorsed by the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a bipartisan 26-member panel that she and Republican leaders appointed to recommend ways Michigan can curb sprawl and improve the urban experience.

Johnson Is A Highway Advocate
Senator Johnson, though, is a highway advocate who believes her Royal Oak constituents couldn’t care less about riding a bus. She thinks they want more highways. Her package of six bills is a direct attack on the plans that the governor and Ms. Jeff have initiated to guide new public investment to Detroit, its inner suburbs (including Troy) and other Michigan cities.

Much of the money available for Governor Granholm’s urban economic development program is tied up in the state’s $3 billion annual transportation tab. If the Legislature gets control of the highway planning process and its ability to raise bond funds for road construction (SB 1168), it could damage Ms. Granholm’s economic program and her legitimacy as a leader.

There are two other important pieces to Senator Johnson’s six-bill proposal. SB 1147 would allow the Legislature to approve or disapprove the transportation department’s five-year plan for highway construction - a function now performed by the agency and its appointed commission. SB 1163 would enable the Legislature to eliminate state spending for public transit; current state law requires spending at least 10 percent of the state-generated share of transportation funds, or roughly $200 million annually, on Michigan’s public transportation agencies.

In most cases, state funds provide a third to half the revenue needed by local public transit agencies. Transit agency executives say the proposal would undermine downtown economies from Traverse City to Detroit.

"Every dollar we lose in state funding is really $2 dollars lost because we’d have to cut service and that costs us riders who pay about a quarter of our operating budget," said Dan Dirks, general manager of SMART, which serves suburban Detroit and is the state’s second-largest transit agency, behind Detroit’s. "Public transit is an economic development tool for this region. Cutting funding would devastate workers and their families who depend on us in this region."

Governor Granholm’s aides have told transit agency executives and public transit advocates that the governor could veto the bills if they pass the Legislature. Moreover, Granholm aides say, the governor is convinced that conservative lawmakers will abandon Senator Johnson’s crusade when their constituents learn of the consequences of the proposed reductions in public transportation and the acceleration of highway building and sprawl.

Sikkema’s District is Heavily Pro-Transit
Her case is persuasive. Traverse City just approved a new downtown bus station. Senator Sikkema represents the inner suburbs of Grand Rapids, a heavily Republican area where voters by wide margins in 2000 and 2003 raised property taxes to finance significant improvements in the region’s public transit system. Property tax revenues now provide a third of that system’s $21 million budget, enough for the system to carry 5.9 million passengers annually. The city just opened a $22 million transit station downtown. Senator Sikkema and his press secretary, Bill Nowling, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

David Bulkowski, the executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County and co-chair of the 2000 and 2003 transit improvement campaigns in Grand Rapids, was not as reticent: "Ken Sikkema’s hometown is Grandville, which in 2003 voted down a proposal to sell beer and wine on Sunday, but by a two-to-one margin approved a property-tax increase for public transit. Ken Sikkema now lives in Wyoming, which on the same day in 2003 that it voted down an increase in taxes to rebuild a pool, voted two-to-one to increase taxes to support public transit. This is a conservative town that showed its support for public transit and the Legislature needs to know that."

Similarly, two years ago voters in Oakland and Macomb counties approved a property tax increase to provide $45 million annually for SMART. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County’s conservative executive, publicly supported the millage increase, an important factor in why it passed by a three-to-two margin. Transit executives say Patterson, a friend and political ally of Senator Johnson’s, is working out of the public eye to convince the Royal Oak lawmaker to back off on her bill to withdraw state support for SMART and other transit systems. Mr. Patterson did not respond to requests for an interview.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A verion of this article also appears in the June 30 edition of Metro Times in Detroit. Reach Keith at keith@mlui.org.

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