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Smart Growth Leader’s Victories, Regrets

Kooiman says term limits spark partisanship, harm state government

July 25, 2006 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Office of Jerry Kooiman

State Representative Jerry Kooiman (behind the woman with the folder), seen here with Habitat for Humanity supporters, persuaded fellow lawmakers to establish a state affordable housing trust fund.

As this year’s state budget negotiations neared resolution, it had heightened significance for the 33 state representatives and six state senators who are leaving the Legislature due to Michigan’s term limits. It is the last budget bill that they will influence. 

One of those bidding adieu to Lansing is the Speaker Pro Tempore of the Michigan House, Republican Representative Jerry Kooiman of Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids native and father of three has spent 28 of his 44 years in federal, county, and state government—ranging from congressional staffs to serving as an elected Kent County commissioner.

Much of his work marks him as one of Lansing’s Smart Growth leaders, as well as someone who is willing to follow a different course than his party leaders. The representative successfully proposed legislation establishing state authority to fund affordable housing. He also helped establish a bipartisan public transportation caucus and pushed hard, and successfully, for a bill that allows local public transportation systems to levy taxes that qualify them for federal transit assistance.

Patient Bipartisanship
Mr. Kooiman used patience and a willingness to reach across the aisle to Democrats—a rare thing in the state’s now highly partisan Legislature—to get his housing and transit bills passed.

For example, his 2001 effort to establish a state affordable housing fund never gained a vote on the House floor. So he re-introduced his bill in May 2003, this time with numerous Democratic co-sponsors. But it still took until December 2004 for the bill to gain a floor vote; when it passed, Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm promptly signed it.

Despite the legislation’s success, however, neither the governor nor legislative leaders have proposed funding it.

His recent efforts to secure long-term, local, federally matched financing for public transit also traveled a lengthy, bumpy road. His Republican colleagues amended his bill, first introduced in June of 2005, so that it would only apply to Grand Rapids. That drew a veto from Governor Granholm, who said the bill must apply to all eligible transit systems—as Mr. Kooiman originally intended—rather than only to one region.

The representative re-filed his bill last April; it stalled for several more months while Ms. Granholm renegotiated its terms with Mr. Kooiman and fellow Republican leaders. Once the bill satisfied the governor, it was approved and signed into law, bringing a $14.4 million federal transit earmark to Grand Rapids that otherwise would have been lost.

Reflecting on his years in public service in December 2004, Representative Kooiman advised students at his alma mater, Calvin College, that “politics is not a spectator sport.” He added: “Don’t compromise your values to ‘fit in.’ People respect those who are willing to stand up courageously—right or wrong—for their beliefs.”

Recently Representative Kooiman sat down for his second in-depth interview for the Great Lakes Bulletin New Service’s Lansing Lowdown column. The first interview appeared in June of 2004. In this latest meeting, Mr. Kooiman reflected on his years in the statehouse and his hopes for a still-unfinished agenda.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: Your recent legislative victory on transit was hard won and took a long time. By securing the ability of local communities to provide long-term local matches for federal transit funding, Grand Rapids will gain some federal funds. What made this road to victory so difficult?  

Representative Kooiman: Well, I wouldn’t say that all transit systems in Michigan are created equal. Not all of them operate at the same level of efficiency or enjoy the same level of local support from their officials.

The reason I changed my original bill was to get it through the Legislature. I was told there was no other way. We tried the first time to push it through, limiting it to Grand Rapids. But as you know, the governor vetoed it because it would not allow the Ann Arbor-Detroit earmark. So we reintroduced it and looked at some different options to appease various legislators. The changes led to support from some of my colleagues.

The Grand Rapids region has the state’s only viable regional transit system. What can other Michigan areas learn from your experiences?

Kooiman: First of all, you must have the elected leadership of the metro area working together. That’s been the key to success in Grand Rapids.

Secondly, you have to work at creating effective transit systems to be able to sell it to your local voters—a plan of action with promises in exchange for their support. And then you have to carry out that action plan; let the public know that it’s been carried out and goals have been met.

And you need a coalition of allies—business, faith community, disability and seniors—all actively engaged and recognizing that transit is about more than individuals with less financial means. It is also about jobs, moving people to and from work or appointments. It’s about providing transportation for elderly and disabled. You need a broad base of support pushing for transit.

How will the Legislature’s Public Transit Caucus build upon this most recent success, particularly in the months that remain in this legislative session?  

Kooiman: The key for the caucus is to hold the line on transit funding in the budget process, to try to make sure we don’t raid the Comprehensive Transportation Fund for the general fund.

Secondly, we must continue education as to the importance of transit—to colleagues on both sides of the aisle. It’s not just an urban issue; it’s also about connecting people to the necessities of life in rural and suburban communities. Actually, transit is an efficient way of moving people and improving the economy.

Affordable housing is another area you’ve championed, but have been unable to secure legislative funding for it. Last November you said, “It’s on my to-do list before I leave office to find that funding source. I’m a firm believer in using tax policy to create incentives for things like affordable housing.”    

With six months left for you, will you be able to find funding?

Kooiman: I’m becoming less and less optimistic. There are a whole lot of competing factors—a sluggish economy, not good prospects for improving revenues, the whole issue of repealing the Single Business Tax, and a replacement tax for it.

The whole focus for the rest of the year will be to look at tax restructuring. So it’s going to be extremely difficult to talk about creating a new revenue source for housing and community development. I’d like to get there, and I’ve had discussions with Representative Steve Tobocman about carrying this issue forward in the next session. Hopefully the climate for this proposal will improve.

Part of your success in the House has been your ability to engage Democratic colleagues. How have you done that? Why is bipartisan civility such a rarity in Lansing?   

Kooiman: It used to be you spent years in the Legislature developing relationships over time. Now [with term limits] you only have six years to develop relationships.

Term limits have also had an impact on developing trust and respect for one another. Every two years, the control of the House from Day One is looked at from a political standpoint—gaining or losing control.  It happens on both sides of the aisle and has a very negative impact on bipartisanship efforts.

Look at the voting patterns in the House over the last six years. It has gotten more dramatic—where it’s really a [vote for a] caucus position. Before term limits, members voted on their own beliefs. The caucus wasn’t the only consideration. Now, every vote becomes an issue that may dictate who is going to be in majority power.

GLB: What are your hopes for the budget resolution? What are the obstacles?  

Kooiman: The budget boils down to a couple of specific issues: public education, higher education, welfare reform, and community health. The bottom line, we have to get to a point where the House, Senate and governor can each take credit for some major piece of the pie. The disagreements are philosophical and very deeply felt. House Republicans are committed to funding higher education and a strong welfare policy for the state that provides and enhances services and training for welfare clients but also holds them accountable with the 48-month, lifetime requirements.

Those issues are at odds with the governor, who has a different view. These are not just simple issues; we’re talking about a change of philosophy of government. This is my last shot at a state budget. That places an additional onus on me.

GLB: As you know, revenue sharing’s reauthorization isn’t far away, and local government has suffered many funding cuts recently. What should be the state’s commitment to cities and towns?

Kooiman: I’ve been a strong advocate of revenue sharing, trying to limit the cuts. I was one of the first legislators who spoke of overriding then-Governor Engler’s version.

But from my perspective, we’ve cut way too deeply into higher education and community colleges. Virtually every segment of state government has been cut significantly. Revenue sharing has had to share that pain. We have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget.

Do we eliminate or reduce Medicaid funding—depriving vulnerable people of health care? Or dramatically reduce the social safety net for welfare without resources? Or do we eliminate state police?

Those are actions I’m just not going to support. Rather than pointing blame, we all need to work together—local government working with the state—to figure out a way to provide assistance. In some degree, it should be based on what local government is doing with those dollars. I’m all for spending at the local level when those dollars are used wisely and efficiently. We should reward consolidation of services among local jurisdictions.

GLB: As you approach the final months of your House tenure, what do you consider your greatest accomplishments?

Kooiman: I wish I could say welfare reform.

The other one would be higher education—forcing a rethinking of how we fund higher education, forcing the idea that outcomes should drive funding. It’s not just the input. We should ask: How many students graduated? What are they contributing to the state?

GLB: Conversely, what has been the greatest legislative disappointment?  

Kooiman: Welfare reform, if we don’t get it done.

Other than that, I would say that term limits are forcing me and others out of office when we have just begun to make a mark, and understand enough about the process and the Legislature. You get to a position where you gain the ability to get things done. 

GLB: How much did your earlier public service as a staff member and a county commissioner shape your legislative interests and priorities? 

Kooiman: I can’t imagine coming into the Legislature without the experience I had at the federal and local levels. The learning curve was enormous for me. For someone coming from outside of the process, that is unimaginable to me.

The county commission experience helped me to understand the inter-relationships of government—counties and state. It gave me a better appreciation of local government.

Congressman Paul Henry showed me a lesson in how someone worked for change from within the system as an insider. He was very pragmatic and would find a solution at the end of the day.

That contrasted with Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who challenged the establishment and the way of thinking of government. He was more of a reformer.

Working with both showed me how both styles can be effective at different times and with different issues.

GLB: What will be your advice to incoming legislators?

Kooiman: Seek ways to work across the aisle. Develop as many friendships and relationships as you can. Think outside the box.

And stay true to yourself.

Editor’s Note: Soon after this interview was completed, Governor Granholm, House Speaker Craig DeRoche, and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema reached agreement on a final state budget. They achieved consensus on higher education, but not welfare reform.

Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s state policy director. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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