As the chair of the Michigan House subcommittee that deals with the state transportation department budget, Rep. Lee Gonzales (D-Flint) admits he should have been paying better attention at a certain moment last week.
It was a few hours into the House Appropriations Committee meeting March 24. Legislators were dealing with the Michigan Department of Transportation's $2.8 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins in July. Several amendments had been presented. Department and legislative staff had given their analyses. Votes had been taken on tweaks to the bill that will eventually reach the full House.
The 30-member committee recessed for a few minutes, and then chair George Cushingberry (D-Detroit) reconvened the group. Gonzales, like a few of the other lawmakers there, was out of his chair and talking to another legislator.
"I should have stayed in my seat and kept my mouth shut so I could hear the chairman," Gonzales says.
Cushingberry began. "I've got one amendment, I guess we might as well go to that one," Cushingberry said as other conversations continued. "We already know what it is to take a vote. We've talked about it all we need to I think. Section 384. At the top it says Section 384."
Other conversations, including Gonzales', continued but Cushingberry went ahead.
"Discussion? Hearing none, the clerk will take the role."
Cushingberry was the first "yes" vote.
The motion passed 16-10 with five committee members passing. Two who had voted for the measure changed their votes before they were totaled: Shanelle Jackson (D-Detroit) and Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Salem Township).
"The Dems figured it must be a good thing so they all said 'yes' without understanding what the amendment said," says Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who voted against it. "People weren't paying attention, and we didn't know what the heck was
Seconds after Cushingberry announced the measure's adoption, Tlaib tried to ask about what had just happened. "Chairman, there needs to be some clarification on what we just voted on and whether it passed. And could I hear the number of votes again?" she asked him.
"The amendment is adopted. See the clerk," he told Tlaib before calling for another recess.
Gonzales says he and the rest of the committee then learned Cushingberry's amendment added a "Section 384" to the MDOT appropriations bill. The addition would halt any funding for "any activity associated with the Detroit River International Crossing study ... unless specific legislation authorizes such a project."
The DRIC is a proposed publicly owned and operated bridge to be built downriver from the Ambassador Bridge. Its supporters say another truck crossing is needed to handle future projected traffic, and to provide redundancy in case the Ambassador is shut down by terrorists or a natural disaster.
In the last eight years, the state has spent about $33 million in studies for the project, and its supporters are aiming for a June 1 deadline to hold a vote of the full Legislature to authorize the project.
But it's opposed by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun, who wants to build a second, six-lane span of his own. He faces hurdles, perhaps the biggest being the Canadian government's refusal to authorize his project. But he has supporters in the Michigan Legislature.
Ambassador Bridge spokesman Phil Frame said he had no comment on Cushingberry's amendment. "I don't have any insight," he said in an e-mail message.
Tlaib, however, a supporter of a publicly owned second span and critic of Moroun, did.
"It just smells funny," she says, calling the amendment a "page out of the Ambassador Bridge Company's playbook. ... It's a form of desperation. For Chairman Cushingberry to pull that? I don't know, I was surprised."
The appropriations committee reconvened March 25, with Tlaib immediately moving for a vote to re-consider Cushingberry's amendment. Voting largely along party lines, the Democrats prevailed and forced a second vote on the amendment. It didn't pass.
Cushingberry did not attend the March 25 hearing and did not return telephone messages left by Metro Times.
"We as a committee decided we were doing to continue on the course we're already on," Gonzales says. "That's to do all the next steps that lead to a public bridge."Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]