Opinion: Columnists

A bridge to Michigan's back rooms

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Photo - The Ambassador Bridge stands between Detroit, Michigan, U.S., and Windsor, Ontario, Canada in this handout photo taken on Sept. 3, 2007. Billionaire Manuel Moroun, who bought the 81-year-old Ambassador  Bridge from Warren Buffett more than three decades ago, is fighting a plan championed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to build a public competitor to the busiest U.S.-Canada border crossing. Source: Detroit International Bridge Company via Bloomberg
EDITOR'S NOTE: EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO SALES.
The Ambassador Bridge stands between Detroit, Michigan, U.S., and Windsor, Ontario, Canada in this handout photo taken on Sept. 3, 2007. Billionaire Manuel Moroun, who bought the 81-year-old Ambassador Bridge from Warren Buffett more than three decades ago, is fighting a plan championed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to build a public competitor to the busiest U.S.-Canada border crossing. Source: Detroit International Bridge Company via Bloomberg EDITOR'S NOTE: EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO SALES.
Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012

Politics is all about bringing people together and building bridges. Or not building them, as the case may be.

That's how billionaire Michigan businessman Manuel "Matty" Moroun nearly got the United Auto Workers and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity to join him in opposing a bridge project that would have hurt his business.

This is a classic tale of horse-trading in American politics and how it can make for the strangest of bedfellows. It is also a good reminder of how supposedly populist endeavors -- because that is how all of the ballot initiatives are being advertised -- often benefit special interests.

The octogenarian Moroun is the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. It carries 8,000 trucks each day and $120 billion worth of goods each year, earning Moroun $100 million a year, according to Forbes. To relieve traffic congestion, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is pushing to build a second bridge. The project has the backing of the Big Three automakers, the state Chamber of Commerce as well as the Michigan AFL-CIO and other unions.

Snyder has worked out a pretty sweet deal on it too. Canada is fronting cash-strapped Michigan's half of the billion-dollar project. It will be paid back through tolls.

This does not sit well with Moroun, who'd rather not lose his bridge monopoly. So he worked to put a ballot initiative -- Proposal 6 -- before the voters. If passed, it would require a statewide vote before Michigan could spend money on international bridges and tunnels.

Americans For Prosperity also has a ballot initiative up, Proposal 5, which would require a two-thirds majority in the state legislature to raise taxes. As it happens, AFP is also taking the same position as Moroun on Proposal 6. AFP argues the bridge project could be a burden on taxpayers.

Moroun is widely suspected of underwriting AFP. Scott Hagerstrom, state director of the group, declined to tell me whether Moroun was financially backing AFP or the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity, a separate nonprofit group also involved in the initiative with ties to AFP. He told me his group won't reveal its backers until after the election. He did insist that there is "no quid pro quo" involved in AFP's backing Proposal 6, and that its top priority was Proposal 5.

Having the Tea Party-aligned group on his side has not sealed the deal, though, so Moroun has been trying to recruit other allies. Last week, news leaked that he had been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The backroom deal, reported by the Detroit Free Press and others, would have had Moroun underwriting the UAW's campaign on Proposal 2 in exchange for the union coming out in favor of Proposal 6.

Proposal 2 is kind of a big one. It would change the state constitution to create a right to collective bargaining and prevent the state from ever becoming a right-to-work state.

On Saturday, UAW President Bob King announced the union was staying neutral on Proposal 6. The union did seriously consider backing it, though, King told the Free Press, but he otherwise declined to comment on the alleged deal.

King reportedly received a barrage of calls from Democratic and union leaders urging the UAW to back off. The automakers, who have stayed neutral on Proposal 2 in deference to the unions but are opposed to Proposal 6, reportedly gave him an earful too.

Mickey Blashfield , a spokesman for Moroun, called the reports unfounded rumors, but he also refused to confirm or deny to the Free Press any talks with the UAW.

The latest Detroit News poll shows Proposals 2 and 6 narrowly leading at 43 to 42 percent and 45 to 43 percent, respectively, both down sharply from late September. Proposal 5 is losing, 43 to 38 percent.

After all the news of the "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" arrangements this election season, the players behind Michigan's ballot proposals could well end up with nothing more than scars to show for it.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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