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Freeway three-way

In Lansing, a trio of strong women scrap over transportation

MT Illustration/Justin Rose
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Published 6/30/2004

State Sen. Shirley Johnson of Royal Oak, the Republican chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been in the Legislature for 22 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. Gov. 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 pursuing an economic development strategy built 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 system for moving people and products.

Ever since January 2003, when 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 big issue is how to close a third straight year of billion-dollar deficits. A question almost as big is how best to spend roughly $3 billion — $2 billion in state-generated revenue, $1 billion in federal money — each year for transportation. Before Friday, when lawmakers are expected to take a brief summer break, the Republican-led Senate may vote on a package of six proposals authored by Johnson that are intended to wrest from Granholm and Jeff and transfer to the Legislature the control of MDOT planning as well as its spending authority for highways and public transit.

If viewed solely in conventional political terms, there is nothing very unusual about a Republican lawmaker trying to gain ground on a popular Democratic leader. What is strikingly different is the spectacle of three women manifesting their power so thoroughly and, in Johnson’s case, so ruthlessly. An entirely new kind of feminine political duel is brewing in Lansing, one that is suffused with conflict over ideology, generation and, perhaps, race. As a stage for drama, Lansing has never been regarded in the same league as, say, Sacramento. Only in California, after all, can a bodybuilder who once played a movie barbarian become governor.

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

Then, earlier this year, during a Senate Appropriations hearing on the transportation budget, Johnson questioned Jeff so harshly that even her Republican colleagues on the committee were noticeably embarrassed and said afterwards that she’d gone too far. The Detroit Free Press wrote an editorial chiding Johnson for displaying such disrespect. Johnson persisted, though, in making a point about who had the power; she sponsored a bill (Senate Bill 1083) that would essentially strip Jeff of her privilege to drive her state vehicle home. Among that measure’s nine Republican co-sponsors was Sikkema.

Neither Johnson nor her chief of staff, Brian O’Connell, responded to phone and e-mail requests for interviews. During an interview, Jeff declined to answer questions about Johnson’s tactics. Granholm also declined interview requests.

To some extent, the imbroglio resembles last year’s struggle over the transportation budget, which the three women fought to a draw. Granholm was elected in large part because she promised to help rebuild cities and curb congestion and sprawl in the suburbs. She also promised to look hard at state spending on projects — particularly new suburban roads — that she viewed as hurting cities and subsidizing sprawling development. In April 2003, Jeff and Granholm proposed halting funding for 34 new road and highway projects, 10 of them in Oakland County. They wanted to use the money saved in new construction to pay for a larger highway-repair program.

Johnson had already used her Appropriations Committee chair to chide Granholm for not selling the state-supported vacation home that governors have traditionally enjoyed on Mackinac Island, and to attack the governor’s first budget as a “house of cards.” Johnson leaped into the road fight with gusto. While negotiating an agreement that would put half of the highways back in the funded column, Johnson let it be known that she was eager to be the Legislature’s loudest critic of the new governor.

While Johnson wields immense power to control state spending, her favorite angle to attack Granholm and Jeff is on highways and transit. Not since 1970s, when moderate Republican William G. Milliken was in power, has a Michigan governor been as sweet on public transit as Granholm. Transit budgets have slipped to close the deficit, but not by as much as they might have without Granholm. Moreover, ridership is increasing for many transit agencies. The Rapid, Grand Rapids’ transit system, added 200,000 riders this year. Ridership on Lansing’s excellent transit system has grown to nearly 9 million passengers annually, up from 4.2 million passengers in 1998. SMART’s ridership in the Detroit suburbs has increased for 16 months in a row and now numbers 37,000 passengers a day.

Granholm also is the first governor to embrace a “fix it first” highway-construction philosophy aimed at improving the system, saving money and slowing sprawl. Last summer, Granholm’s 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 deal with sprawl and urban decline.

Johnson, though, is a highway advocate who apparently 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 Granholm and Jeff have initiated to guide new public investment to Detroit, its inner suburbs and other Michigan cities.

Much of the money available for 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), Granholm’s economic program, as well as her legitimacy as a leader, would be damaged.

The other two important pieces of Johnson’s six-measure proposal are:

SB 1147, which would give the Legislature the power 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, which would enable the Legislature to eliminate state spending for public transit, an abrupt departure from the current law requiring spending at least 10 percent of the state-generated share of transportation funds, or roughly $200 million annually, on Michigan’s 80 public transportation agencies.

In most cases, state funds provide one-third to half the revenue needed by local public transit agencies. Transit agency executives say Johnson’s bill 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,” says 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.”

Granholm’s aides have told transit-agency executives and 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 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.

Her case is persuasive. Traverse City just approved a new downtown bus station. Sikkema represents the inner suburbs of Grand Rapids, 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 The Rapid’s $21 million budget, enough to run 139 vehicles and carry 5.9 million passengers annually. The city just opened a $22 million transit station downtown. Sikkema and his press secretary, Bill Nowling, did not respond to interview requests.

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 reticient. “Ken Sikkema’s hometown is Grandville, which in 2003 voted down a proposal to sell beer and wine on Sunday, but by a 2-to-1 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 2-to-1 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. L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County’s conservative executive, publicly supported the millage increase, an important factor in why it won easily. Transit executives say Patterson, a friend and political ally of 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. Patterson did not respond to requests for an interview.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah, www.mlui.org. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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