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After Neglect, A Welcome Consensus on the Environment

Gubernatorial candidates promise new government activism

June 20, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, sees a need for more safeguards for the Great Lakes, and more government authority to get it done.

In the last decade of the 20th century, Michigan appeared to care so little for its natural gifts that multinational food companies were actually paid millions to take the state’s valuable fresh water, energy companies were secretly subsidized to exploit natural gas reserves, thousands of acres of public domain were traded or sold away, and tens of billions of gallons of raw sewage poured into the Great Lakes.

If the 2002 gubernatorial campaign is any indication, Michigan in the first decade of the 21st century is a vastly different state.

The condition of Michigan’s cities and countryside, and the capacity of state government to manage them, are again top public priorities. Prompted by opinion polls, media attention, and legislative testimony the major party candidates have also reached a resounding consensus about the central importance that fresh water, public lands, smart transportation investments, and curbing sprawl play in the state’s civic and economic life.

New View in Michigan: Government Has a Role
Moreover, in a sharp departure from the deregulatory, bureaucrat-bashing attitude that motivated voters and political leaders in the 1990s, the 2002 gubernatorial candidates are promising to manage these challenges with a newly activist state government.

For example, each of the six candidates, including the Republicans, is running on a platform that calls for new legislation and government programs to improve the quality and security of Michigan’s fresh water.

Water, in fact, is emerging as a new organizing principle for state government. Former governor James Blanchard, a Democrat, proposes a new Department of Great Lakes and Water Quality that unites several existing divisions of the state departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, and gives them new authority and responsibilities.

"We have a constitutional obligation to protect these 37 million acres that we call Michigan," says Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the leading Democrat, who has a 10-point plan to protect the Great Lakes. "I am so committed to environmental progress and to making this state again a leader on cutting edge environmental policy and law."

"This election is about values and leadership," says Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, the leading Republican, who proposes new water protection statutes as part of his "Marshall Plan" to safeguard the Great Lakes. "Part of Michigan’s values is the quality of the land and the water."

Conservation Again Core Issue
before, say long-time political observers, have environmental and quality of life issues attracted such attention from candidates this early in a Michigan gubernatorial campaign. And never before have candidates of both parties so readily agreed on the top priorities.

Last month, for instance, the six major party candidates attended an environmental forum that attracted some 900 people to the Brighton High School auditorium. The large crowd and the full slate of candidates confirmed what internal polling by both parties has been saying for more than a year. A mix of old and new issues – the Great Lakes, traffic congestion, urban disinvestment, farmland conservation, and sprawl – have blossomed into major political issues.

The list of 21st century civic needs bears no resemblance at all to the 1990s social agenda – guns, abortion, taxes, and deregulation — that motivated voters and political leaders. Just as surprising, even for veteran political observers, is that the leaders of both parties not only generally agree about today’s most important environmental problems, they also are united about the role of government in responding.

From the conservative right – Lt. Gov. Posthumus – to the traditional left – Democratic congressman David Bonior – the gubernatorial candidates are expressing their determination to deploy the legislature and the regulatory agencies much more aggressively to rebuild public trust and to treat Michigan’s environmental and civic ills.

Republicans Turning Green
To get an idea of just how profoundly the political winds have shifted in Michigan, it’s useful to follow the two leading Republican candidates. Both Mr. Posthumus and state Sen Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek have been prominent right wing leaders, consistently voting against measures that would expand government’s role in policing polluters, or invest in environmental safeguards.

Mr. Posthumus, for instance, even supported legislation in the 1990s that made it much easier for huge, mega manure corporate hog and dairy farms to migrate from others states to settle in Michigan.

If you listen to Mr. Posthumus and Mr. Schwarz now they sound remarkably like progressives, especially the planners, environmental organizations, and urban civic groups that have been busy setting a new activist agenda since the mid-1990s. For instance, both agree with the Democratic candidates that one crucial aspect of helping cities, solving sprawl, and improving Michigan’s environment involves fixing roads first before building new highways. In the motor capital of the world, that’s a monumental change in public understanding of the role that cars and roads play in the health of cities and the countryside.

"We’re building, building, building," says Sen. Schwarz, who proposes to raise the gasoline tax 4 cents to 7 cents a gallon to pay for road repairs. "We don’t need any more new freeways in this state. We need to maintain the ones that we have."

Sprawl A Priority for Policy Reforms
On sprawl, as well, the Republican candidates seem comfortable with new government activism to help local communities encourage more environmentally sensitive and less economically expensive patterns of development. "People are moving out and out," says Sen. Schwarz. "We need good planning in place. We’ve got to preserve wetlands. We can’t let sprawl go unabated, uncontrolled. We will control it."

The interest in sprawl as a political issue has been steadily growing at the grass roots in Michigan for nearly a decade. In 1992 a task force appointed by Governor John Engler identified the "absence of sound land use planning" as one of the state’s top environmental issues.

Mr. Engler used the finding as the foundation of a first-of-its-kind state law to accelerate toxic waste clean-ups in Michigan’s cities. But other than advancing his brownfield agenda, Gov. Engler distanced himself and his administration from substantive legislative work to strengthen programs to improve transportation, protect water, invest in cities, or curb sprawl. In the late 1990s, in fact, he purposefully signed one bill that accelerated development of subdivisions and strip malls in rural areas, and approved another law that made it much easier to develop large, polluting livestock factories in farming areas.

That, clearly, is not how the 2002 candidates view government’s role in environmental and land use issues. Democrats are in agreement with the Republicans that much more public money needs to be spent on improving public transportation in Michigan so that citizens have more choices for getting around other than on cracking and crowded highway.

Representative Bonior proposed new light rail lines for Detroit’s major boulevards – Woodward Avenue, Gratiot, and Grand River. Lt. Gov. Posthumus called for streamlining the state Transportation Department’s "bureaucracy" and establishing citizen advisory boards to assist in forming state transportation policy.

Keith Schneider, an environmental journalist who contributes regularly to the
New York Times, Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. For more of the Institute’s coverage of the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign see www.mlui.org

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