By Pat Shellenbarger/Bridge Magazine contributor
For $152 million, you could buy dinner and a cocktail for every Michigan voter who cast a ballot in the Nov. 6 election.
Or you could give every man, woman and child in Michigan their very own Chia Obama or Chia Romney, depending, of course, on their political persuasions.
Or you could have spent that money to coax Michigan’s voters on how to decide the six proposals – including five constitutional amendments – on this year’s ballot.
The various interest groups battling it out in the proposal section of the ballot raised and spent an estimated $152 million this year, says the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan coalition concerned about the influence of money on politics.
The amount spent on political issues and candidates has increased dramatically in Michigan and nationally, said Rich Robinson, executive director of MCFN, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which said the First Amendment bars the government from limiting political expenditures by corporations and unions.
“I think if you’re talking about politics and you’re not talking about money, then you’re not talking about politics,” Robinson said.
John Helmholdt, director of communications and external affairs for the Grand Rapids Public Schools and former co-owner of a campaign consulting firm, has seen the interaction of money and politics from both sides. He was particularly concerned about the misinformation spread by backers of Proposal 5, which would have required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, and Proposal 6, which would have forced a statewide vote to build a bridge between Detroit and Windsor.
“The voters did their homework,” he said. “Hopefully, that will send a message to the special interest groups that Michigan voters saw through this.”
The $152 million spent on this year’s ballot proposals is “nearly the equivalent of our entire operating budget,” said Helmholdt, noting that Grand Rapids schools will spend a little more than $201 million on operations this year.
For $152 million, Michigan’s public schools could pay a year’s salaries and benefits for 1,520 teachers, he said. “That would go a long way toward hiring more teachers, more tutors, more academic support,” Helmholdt added.
What else does $152 million buy? Any one of the following:
* A $32.24 check to each of the 4,714,239 Michigan voters who cast ballots in the presidential election.
* A doubling of the number of 4-year-olds served by the Great Start preschool program.
* Enrollment of high school students in more than 540,000 online courses through Michigan Virtual University.
* iPads for 375,000 students.
* A year’s tuition, fees, room and board for 7,170 Michigan State University freshmen — or one year’s tuition and fees for more than 59,000 community college students.
* Rehabilitation of some 80 lane-miles of Michigan’s bumpy roads and preventive maintenance on another 360 lane-miles.
* A year’s worth of health insurance for more than 62,000 of Michigan’s uninsured residents.
* A year’s worth of operations for the legislative branch, or the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
* Salaries and benefits for 2,300 police officers for a year.
The last option would nearly restore the total number of police officers to the 22,000 employed by the state and municipalities a decade ago, said Ed Jacques, member services director for the Police Officers Association of Michigan.
As it is, the $152 million spent on the ballot proposals “didn’t do any good,” he said, noting that voters rejected all five constitutional amendments (while also repealing the 2011 emergency manager law via Proposal 1).
“I just shake my head,” he said. “The radio and TV stations made out like bandits.”
Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.