Michigan’s Gov. Snyder: Great Lakes protector or placeholder?
I’m trying hard to believe that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is interested in the Great Lakes and environs.
That he willl work proactively to protect Michigan’s natural resources versus being a placeholder who goes through the motions.
But he’s making it hard. Here’s what I mean.
Last week Snyder’s office announced that the governor will probably sign a new law that weakens protection of Michigan’s iconic sand dunes.
The legislation would shift the burden of proof for environmental impact from a home owner or developer to the state. This would make it easier to build on Michigan’s critical and world-class dunes.
Perhaps more important, it makes it harder for interested parties to get a public hearing on proposed dune construction.
”The Governor will more than likely sign it” said Sara Wurfel, Snyder’s press secretary. She indicated the bill has “key protections” that will serve the dunes as well as private property rights.
Wurfel also said compromises were made before the governor agreed to sign the bill but did not respond to a request to detail the compromises.
The legislation lacked bi-partisan support, passing along party lines with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing. Snyder is a Republican.
Protector or placeholder?
Snyder came to office in 2010 with other Republican governors in the key Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. When Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker immediately started dismantling environmental protections, I began paying attention to Snyder. Would he follow suit?
The Michigan League of Conservation Voters has tracked Snyder’s environmental performance since he took office. Out of 49 environmental decisions he has made, 26 were rated positive, 15 neutral and 22 negative. The ratings did not take into account the magnitude of the decision.
Among the decisions is one to make it easier to build coal-fired power plants which is retro-thinking on energy. Michigan doesn’t need to import more coal to support 19th century energy technology. But he also supported the Obama administration’s offshore wind and high-speed rail initiatives. Improving rail transport is a priority for environmental groups.
No, Snyder wasn’t going to be a loose environmental cannon like Wisconsin’s Walker. But neither would he be another William Milliken, the Republican governor who set the gold standard when it came to protecting Michigan’s natural resources.
Big issues on Snyder’s agenda
To be fair, the environment isn’t the biggest issue on Snyder’s agenda.
He has Detroit’s survival to deal with.
I’ve watched him through the lens of MiWeek’s coverage of his attempts to salvage Detroit, the city that can’t govern itself and doesn’t want to be governed by the state. Snyder has bobbled the Detroit issue, allowing the dysfunctional city government to flounder while Detroit struggles to provide even basic security services.
But I’ve also seen him deftly move with success on his signature project, a new bridge linking Detroit and Canada. The bridge could be a coup for Michigan and Detroit producing real jobs and changing the perception that the state and city can’t accomplish anything.
Back to the sand dune law.
Its sponsor is Sen. Arlan Meekhof from Olive Township, a handgun toting Republican who is known for having a pistol on his belt while conducting senate business.
Meekhof has defended the dune degradation bill saying it is designed to protect the state from lawsuits by property owners who must seek permission from the state to build on their property. Current law is designed to protect the dunes requiring property owners to demonstrate that construction won’t harm the dunes.
Meekhof’s argument is weak.
If you live in certain officially designated historic areas there are limits to what you can do with your home. It comes with the territory. The same should apply to “critical” sand dunes. The property owner should bear the burden of proving actions will not do harm.
Who’s advising the governor?
As this could have been an easy veto, I wondered who was advising Gov. Snyder on the dune bill. I assumed it would be Patty Birkholz the director of the Office of the Great Lakes.
The office’s website talks about “wise development of coastal communities… and working with our partners… including the Governor.” It also says it “leads policy development.”
Birkholz has a high Great Lakes profile and a long history of working on dune issues. She is a Snyder appointee and has a sense of the senate as a former member. It would seem natural for the governor to seek her counsel on the dunes bill.
I asked Birkholz if she advised the governor.
There was no response from Birkholz but I received one from Maggie Cox, the DEQ’s legislative liaison. “The Office of the Great Lakes is part of the DEQ so it doesn’t take a position on legislation” Cox said.
Really? The office charged with protecting the Great Lakes and says it works with the governor has no position on a bill that could lead to degradation of Michigan’s sand dunes?
I figured I must be missing something so I went back to Snyder’s press secretary, Sara Wurfel.
Did the Office of the Great Lakes’ Patty Birkholz advise Gov. Snyder on the sand dune bill and if yes, what was her advice, I asked?
Wurfel didn’t answer my question about any Birkholz involvement.
Instead Wurfel reiterated who does what in the bureaucratic process of state government. That leaves me perplexed about the Office of the Great Lakes’ mission. Maybe it’s more about appearance but that’s for another time.
As previously mentioned, a Snyder veto of the sand dune bill should have been easy.
It would have continued a long, bi-partisan tradition of protecting Michigan’s dunes . The ones in those Pure Michigan ads.
If Snyder can get his bridge to Canada built that will be his legacy. But bridges last for what, 75 years?
Sand dunes are for millennia if we protect them.
But protecting the dunes doesn’t appear to be on the governor’s agenda.