Legislator says funding for unknown projects not unusual in Michigan
The P20 Pyramid project in Grand Rapids has been characterized as a "mystery project" due to the lack of details about it. But Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Gaines Township, says the story behind his effort to get state funding for the project is neither unusual nor mysterious.
"I saw a project that was very close to my community that had time sensitivity concerning donors' decisions," he said. "I believed and still believe it can be a very important project."
On that basis, he sought $5.5 million in state funding for the project as a line item in Senate Bill 608, a supplemental budget measure that recently moved through the Legislature. Sen. Jansen, a 13-plus year veteran of the Legislature, said he's seen other projects receive state funding without legislators knowing many details about them.
The P20 project has been promoted as a way to increase the number of students in Michigan who would be proficient in high-tech STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. P20 education systems integrate coursework from preschool through higher education.
On Feb. 20, the Senate passed Senate Bill 608 with the P20 Pyramid project and the $5.5 million for it intact. But the House version of the legislation did not include the project and by mid-March the attempt to get state funding for it was on hold. Sen. Jansen was accused by Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson of being too personally involved with the project, and by the end of March, Gov. Rick Snyder publicly opposed giving it state money.
The project would be located in the Gaines Township portion of Grand Rapids. Steelcase, the West Michigan furniture company, was planning to donate its landmark Pyramid building to the project.
That is the extent of information that news outlets across the state reported because details have been lacking.
"I would say that I'm still talking to people and doing what I can to make sure that more is known about it," Sen. Jansen said. "And I can tell you that all along there have been a lot of discussions with a lot of people."
Sen. Jansen said that many of those discussions took place in the Grand Rapids area. However, the $5.5 million in funding Sen. Jansen was seeking would be taxpayers across the state.
Sen. Jansen acknowledged that the legislative hearing on Senate Bill 608 didn't focus on many details of the P20 project, but he pointed out that he has seen other projects move through the State’s appropriations process with few if any questions being asked about them.
Before the $5.5 million for the P20 Pyramid project was taken out of Senate Bill 608, the Michigan Strategic Fund was listed as its funding source. The strategic fund operates in conjunction with the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which is the state's corporate welfare arm.
Michael Shore, MEDC vice president of communications, said the MEDC had no knowledge of, or involvement with, the P20 Pyramid project.
"MEDC follows the direction of the State Budget Office on all budget matters," Shore said. "We had no involvement and no knowledge of the proposal prior to Senate action. We took no position on the matter."
Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said there is evidence that projects have received state funding in the past without being subject to very much planning or scrutiny by state officials.
"Politicians and government economic development officials portray corporate welfare programs as somehow being based on sophisticated economic research and analysis. That's an illusion," he said. "In my files is a memo from a high-level MEDC official explaining another mystery deal years ago. It reads: 'Most of the deal was put together directly by the Governor (and the owner of the company). We were brought in after the deal was cut to do the paperwork.' This sort of seat-of-pants-favor-granting is probably far more common than anyone imagines. So it may not be that unusual for MEDC officials to be in the dark on this one."
Sen. Jansen said he is still considering whether he will push for state funding for the P20 Pyramid. But if so, he said there would be "a more in-depth process" including a legislative hearing that would reveal specific details of the project.
Jerry Zandstra, president of the board for Pyramid P20 STEM Education, the nonprofit that would operate the project, said it does not hinge on the $5.5 million in state financing.
"It wasn't something we counted on," Zandstra said. "It wasn't even in our budget. But that $5.5 million sure would have been helpful. I think Sen. Jansen saw this as something worthwhile and believed it would be good if the state intervened."
Zandstra said the project would offer students an education experience different from what they get through regular public schools, charter public schools and Intermediate School Districts.
"It would be significantly different because the students don't come in and out, they'd be surrounded by instructors who are in universities," Zandstra said, adding that the atmosphere would resemble that of a college campus.
If the Pyramid building is donated for the project, it would be owned by the nonprofit board, he said.
Zandstra said that Sen. Jansen's name should not have been on the charter school application, which raised some concerns and confusion.
"I think they (organizers who submitted the application) just put in the names of a lot people who supported the project," Zandstra said.
Sen. Jansen said he was not, and is not, playing an active role in any of the organizing aspects of the P20 project.
"I don't want anyone to be mistaken about this; I didn't want to have anything to do with any of that. I never attending any meetings," Sen. Jansen said. "All I was trying to do was help what I considered could be something really good."
Zandstra said no one is trying to make a profit on the project.
"We're a nonprofit, all volunteer organization involved with education and none of us ever makes anything (any profits) on it," he said. "In fact, it usually costs us something."