Is democracy too messy in Michigan?
While voters speak up in Oakland and Mecosta County, Lansing lawmakers dismantle local control
There was a consistent thread in the Michigan Senate Energy and Environment Committee meeting Tuesday: Democracy is too messy. When it comes time to decide the siting of large-scale wind and solar projects in Michigan, it’s best to let the experts decide.
At issue Tuesday were House bills 5120 and 5121, which would strip local communities in Michigan of their power to approve or deny large solar or wind developments.
The Senate committee’s amendments did allow more local power than the versions that came from the House. In the Senate amendments, developers would be forced to deal with local communities first before approaching the Michigan Public Service Commission. They would also have to contribute $75,000 to an opposing local community, to defend itself in Lansing.
Despite that effort at balance, Sen. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, saw the end game: Lansing, not local communities, would have the final say.
“What I'm concerned is that this effort allows the public to go through the motions of being involved, but at the end of the day, their opinion really doesn’t matter,” Damoose said.
Dan Scripps, chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission, testified in defense of the bills.
Damoose asked him: Say a local community opposes the project, but the commission wants it. What happens then?
“The only reason that it would come to us is if there wasn’t a compatible local ordinance, that it was more restrictive than what’s in state law,” Scripps said.
“So as long as we say yes, you don’t get involved?” Damoose asked.
There was laughter in the committee room, but no answer from Scripps.
But the answer was yes.
“(Michigan’s) current approach to renewable siting is broken,” Scripps testified prior to the exchange. “It’s difficult to see how we meet these commitments or our broader renewable energy goals without meaningful siting reform.”
Scripps added: “In its most recent (integrated resource plan) DTE concluded that siting has been a critical challenge for the development of new renewable energy projects. It’s the same story for consumers and their IRP, they noted the challenges associated with economic build in Michigan due to township and county restrictions in optimal areas for wind.”
Before Scripps, Rep. Ranjeev Puri, D-Canton, a sponsor of the House bills, testified that “Michigan will be unable to meet its future climate goals without passing this legislation.”
And there would be more solar and wind projects in Michigan if it weren’t for those pesky local officials, supporters argue.
“Without a robust process in place, we can’t improve the scale of projects needed to meet our generation goals,” Puri testified. “We've seen hundreds of projects delayed and abandoned due to permitting issues here in Michigan.”
Rather than persuade local leaders to embrace these technologies, or lead efforts to vote them out, the answer from Lansing is to go over their heads. To take by force what can’t be earned by negotiation. To say the unelected and appointed bureaucrat is better suited than a township board to make these decisions.
Sen. Roger Hauck, R-Mt. Pleasant, asked Puri how many solar and wind developments existed in his district.
“My district doesn’t host any,” Puri said.
A farmer named Dick Farnsworth testified that township officials considering solar and wind projects face harassment campaigns and even recall efforts. Local officials are overwhelmed, he said.
“Giving the responsibility to the (public service commission) makes sense to me,” Farnsworth testified. “Many of the township officials that I’ve talked to say they were unprepared to make these decisions and felt overwhelmed.”
What Farnsworth describes is politics as usual. A feature, not a bug. Raised voices are the hazard of a field where 50%-plus-one confers carte blanche on the winning team.
People don’t like to feel powerless, so they speak up. And when their voices aren’t heard, they recall officeholders. If that’s what constitutes “overwhelming,” so be it.
Later Tuesday night, hours after the Senate committee approved the bills, voters in Green Township recalled five of their leaders in a backlash to the Gotion project, which will build EV batteries in the Big Rapids area.
A supervisor in a nearby township was also recalled. On the very day Lansing decided that local voices spoke too loudly, that democracy was too messy, the public used what voice they had. “Use it or lose it” isunfortunately close to reality.
What we see as involved citizens, Lansing sees as pesky locals standing in the way of the governor’s plans. Michigan had a trial run with central planning in 2020. It didn’t go well, running 10 million lives out of the governor’s office.
There was a hopeful moment Tuesday night in Southfield, when voters rejected efforts to make the city clerk and city treasurer positions appointed, rather than elected. Both measures failed 70-30.
It turns out people like having a say in how their communities are run.
James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.