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Group challenges anti-bridge proposal as legally flawed attempt to protect Maroun monopoly

August 22, 2012
By: Jonathan Oosting

A group calling itself Taxpayers Against Monopolies says a proposal designed to block construction of a new Detroit-Windsor bridge contains legal and logical flaws that should keep it off the November ballot.

The proposal, backed by Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, seeks to amend the Michigan constitution to require a public vote for state participation in any international bridge or tunnel project not already completed by the end of the year, including the New International Trade Crossing planned by Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian officials.

“This is nothing more than an attempt by the Moroun family to use the Michigan Constitution to protect their monopoly in Detroit,” Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said at a noon press conference. “Nobody should use the Constitution to protect their own interests.”

The state Board of Canvassars is scheduled to review the anti-bridge proposal on Monday, but the new opposition group is expected to file its legal arguments later today.

Two high-profile attorneys retained by the group — John Pirich of Honingman Miller and Mike Hodge of Miller Canfield — suggested the proposal is legally flawed, does not meet the standards for a constitutional amendment and may put other Michigan bridge projects in jeopardy.

Pirich pointed to the ballot petition language, arguing that it does not include republication of at least three existing constitutional provisions that would be altered or abrogated, as required by state law.

“This is a grave error and should result in the board having no difficulty in not certifying this petition,” he said.

Mike Hodge of Miller Canfield said the proposal includes sloppy language that could jeopardize dozens of bridge projects around the state.

Specifically, the proposal would require a public vote for any international crossing, but it loosely defines such a crossing as “any bridge or tunnel which is not open to the public and serving traffic” by the end of the year.

“Inadvertantly or purposefully, this effects every bridge that is under construction in Michigan or any bridge planned to be developed,” Hodge said, noting that the definition does not include any references to geography or jurisdiction.

Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Regional Chamber, said the proposal could threaten several major construction projects in West Michigan, including reconstruction of the 112th Avenue bridge over I-96, which would pave the way for a larger project that includes a new bridge over the Grand River.

“It’s really frustrating to be here,” Johnston said from a room on the fourth floor of the state capitol building. “It’s frustrating because this proposal is so counter-productive to moving Michigan forward.”

Hodge also pointed out that the proposal does not make exceptions for natural disasters or terrorist attacks on existing bridges, meaning reconstruction would require a public vote in a future election cycle, which could take as long as two years.

“The long and short of it is that this is an impossible proposal,” Hodge said. “It’s bad for Michigan. It’s bad for all of us, and it was not well-thought out when it was drafted.”

The People Should Decide, a ballot committee funded entirely by Moroun companies, contends that the $2.1 billion bridge project could end up costing Michigan taxpayers and is not justified by current traffic.

Spokesman Mickey Blashfield was not immediately available for comment this afternoon, but said in an earlier statement that he has no doubt the proposal is in compliance with Michigan law and dismissed the suggestion it would impact domestic projects.

“More than 600,000 Michigan voters signed our petition because they wanted a say in the matter,” he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder in June announced an interlocal agreement with Canada to form a public-private partership for construction and operation of the NITC, to be located roughly two miles down the Detroit River from the Ambassador.

Canada has agreed to cover Michigan’s upfront costs for the project and recoup its investment through future toll revenue. The U.S. General Services Adminstration is expected to cover the cost of a customs plaza and the bridge itself will be financed by investors in a public-private partnership.

The Grand Rapids and Detroit chambers are the only known organizations funding Taxpayers Against Monopolies, but they are reaching out to other NITC supporters to help pay attorney fees. Both groups support the new bridge as a way to strengthen trade relationships with Canada and protect one of the nation’s busiest international trade routes.

Update: Mickey Blashfield, director of The People Should Decide ballot committee, released the following statement following today’s press conference.

“This challenge is a gross mischaracterization of the plain meaning of The People Should Decide initiative, and it is nothing but a deliberate attempt to mislead Michigan voters with the hope that the voters will abandon common sense. The proposed is written in plain English and meets all legal requirements. More than 600,000 voters understood what it meant when they signed the petitions and joined the chorus of those calling for a say in how public money is spent on international crossings in November. The proposal is appropriately submitted to the voters for approval, and we are fully confident our language will stand up to this ridiculous challenge.”