Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 21, 2012

Phil Power: Snyder borrows from Engler

BY PHIL POWER, Columnist

---- — So it looks as though Gov. Rick Snyder will get his bridge, which is to say that the people of Michigan will get their much-needed new bridge across the Detroit River.

Obviously, this is not going to happen overnight. Those busy folks over at the Detroit International Bridge Co. will no doubt be hiring all the lawyers they can to drag the New International Trade Crossing project into any and every court they can dig up.

And Matty Moroun's seemingly endless streams of cash will continue to fill our TV screens with yet more blatantly "factually challenged" ads. He will also continue his petition drive, paying for signatures to get a statewide vote on building any new bridge.

The governor's folks maintain that wouldn't affect their plans, regardless. But it's clear there are a whole lot of moving parts to anything as complicated as a major new international bridge across the Detroit River. In the long view, however, getting the bridge into place will produce thousands of construction jobs once work starts. The project will provide the keystone for an economic development strategy that could add tens of thousands of permanent jobs to Michigan's economy in the decades to come.

Here's the fundamental reality we can't forget: Michigan is tied closely to Canada, our nation's largest trading partner. Now couple the new bridge with an improved railroad tunnel under the river and with facilities linking Detroit Metropolitan Airport with Willow Run. Add to that trans-Atlantic freight coming to and from the deep-water port of Halifax via the Canadian National Railway.

All together, this gives us the components for a tremendously powerful logistics system that knits together road, rail, air and water transport to provide integrated access to all of middle America's markets. That's a compelling vision for the future.

We found out a lot more about our governor during this struggle. Rick Snyder describes himself as a "nerd." But nobody ever figured him as a Machiavellian strategist and brilliant schemer on a par with one of his predecessors, John Engler.

Snyder unexpectedly pledged to build the bridge in his first inaugural address. As the months went by, it became clear the legislators, happily taking Moroun campaign money and chanting anti-government ideology, would never approve a bridge .

So what did our governor do? He immediately started working on a way to bypass the Legislature to get it done.

He discovered Article III, Paragraph 5 of the 1963 Michigan Constitution which says, in part: "This state or any ... governmental authority ... may enter into agreements for the performance, financing or execution of their respective functions with ... the United States, the Dominion of Canada or any political subdivision thereto." He was also shown the federal International Bridge Act of 1972, under which Congress said a state could enter into an agreement with Canada "in the case of a bridge connecting the U.S. to Canada."

The press conferences last week featuring Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear just how powerful the use of an "inter-local agreement" working with the Michigan Strategic Fund would be. Here, it serves as a device to pave the way for a bridge to be built with no Michigan taxpayer money involved. The Canadians are furnishing up to $550 million in financing. Even better, the U.S. government is allowing Michigan to use that to qualify for more than $2 billion in matching money for improving state roads and bridges.

Who directed the governor's attention to these precedents? None other than Richard McLellan, who was one of John Engler's closest advisors and, among other things, was a founder of the Mackinac Center, the libertarian think tank in Midland.

In addition to his willingness to listen to McLellan, Snyder reminds me of Engler in two important ways: First, a relentless and remorseless focus on the long-term importance of a very few crucial initiatives. Second, his ability to seize on unexpected and powerful ways to get done what ordinary politicians had blocked.

People with long memories don't need to be reminded that Engler was the governor who created the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a public-private partnership that depends on "inter-local agreements" with economic developers around the state. Engler appointed Snyder his first chairman of the MEDC, and there is no doubt that Snyder remembered clearly just how powerful the MEDC, the Strategic Fund and their inter-local agreements could be in getting things done.

It has been far more common to see Snyder compared to the last great moderate Michigan governor, William G. Milliken.

But what is essential to understanding our present governor is how much he resembles in imagination, intensity and shrewdness one John Engler. Nobody who watched Snyder win election in 2010 as a "moderate non-politician" could have expected this. Nobody who expects Snyder to roll over when challenged should forget it.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By e-mail at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.