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Investigate wrongful politicizing of state grants

The recent revelations into the politicization of state economic development resources are deeply troubling.

Officials in the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a quasi-public agency, used state grants as political leverage in the constitutional crisis provoked by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a budget she found objectionable.

At stake were grants of $495,000 to Alpena, $100,000 to Manistee, and $200,000 to Paw Paw for downtown cityscape improvements.

Setting aside the important constitutional issues, those grants are supposed to be apolitical. In many cases, grants and other resources aren’t earmarks, as so-called pork barrel spending is generally called. Instead, the funds transmitted to local governments and other community stakeholders occurs after a competitive process, including applications and merit-based criteria.

I won’t deny that politics plays a hand. Look, you can never take the politics out of politics, but the established process has generally been seen as a relatively fair and apolitical way to marshal state resources for economic development. At least until now.

Even more awkwardly for Whitmer, the issue is remarkably similar to what national Democrats impeached President Donald Trump for allegedly doing vis-a-vis Ukraine. To be clear, I’m not calling for impeachment, but Democrats have created a precedent that certainly seems applicable.

Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder pandered to the tea party in 2010 by promising to end crony capitalism. Instead, the state would focus on “economic gardening” to ensure a level playing field for all innovators, job creators and entrepreneurs. Gone were the days of Lansing picking winning and losers.

Not only has Whitmer ended that approach, but her administration seems to view the MEDC as a political actor in partisan back-and-forth of state government.

If left unaddressed, that would essentially subjugate the agency responsible for economic development to the political spoils system.

That is the last thing Michigan needs.

Was the governor directly involved, or did her apparatchiks conduct themselves based on a nod and wink? We may never know, because Michigan’s open-records law shields the governor’s office from disclosures, despite it being the most important office in the administration.

Predictably, Republicans in the state Senate and House of Representatives criticized both the MEDC and Whitmer administration after the revelations were reported by The Detroit News.

But sharply worded criticism isn’t enough.

It is time for one or both houses of the Legislature — regularly derided as inept in this age of term imits — to exercise their constitutionally mandated oversight duties and responsibilities by conducting an investigation and holding hearings into the politicization and withholding of state grants. Any legislative inquiry should also subpoena records and put testifiers under oath.

The affair also renews long-standing skepticism over the MEDC and the overall effectiveness of grants, subsidies, film incentives, tax abatements and other resources that Snyder once called “the heroin drip of state government.”

Using economic development resources for political purposes only pours fuel on the fire.

It also gives Republicans a legitimate excuse not to support legislation that restores funding to the state tourism office, which is housed in the MEDC.

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.