Opinion

Witwer, Barrett and the politics behind the GM battery plant deal

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If the old adage is true and all politics are local, you have to wonder how this week’s announcement that General Motors plans to sink $3.230 billion into the Lansing area is going to work out for two local political figures: state Rep. Angela Witwer and state Sen. Tom Barrett.

First, let me set the stage.

General Motors, the United States’ top auto manufacturer, said it will build a new, $2.68 billion electric vehicle batter plant near the Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant. The Lansing Grand River and Delta Township plants also will see $550 million in planned upgrades.

A total of 1,700 new jobs for the area is being promised.

I’m told this only happened because the Legislature passed and the governor signed before Christmas this new $1 billion economic development program. General Motors is going to get about two-thirds of this money for what amounts to a $7 billion investment in Michigan.

The auto industry is moving toward electric vehicles. General Motors wants to get deeper into this market.

Would they have come to the Lansing area without these incentives? Would they have gone to Tennessee or Kentucky like Ford did?

Last year, GM sunk $2.3 billion into a new battery plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., after all. We’re taking General Motors at their word that the answer is yes.

So, let’s start with Witwer, the House Democrats’ go-to on these economic development projects.

The second-term House member helped sell her caucus on why the $1 billion Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SORA) fund was necessary.

Being well connected with both local organized labor and business groups, Witwer worked to get an overwhelming majority of House Democrats to support something progressives decried as a corporate handout.

On Tuesday, Witwer urged the Strategic Fund Board to approve the $661 million in state incentives that greased the wheels for the $7 billion GM investments statewide. She shared the stage with GM chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Witwer was given a chance to even speak at the press conference livestreamed around the world. She and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. were the only Democratic legislators given this opportunity.

As she looks at running for a third term, Witwer so far has no Republican opponent. I’m told her support for the GM program apparently chased away one potential candidate.

Gina Johnsen, her 2020 opponent, might return again, but with Republicans having so many open, competitive seats to run in all over the state, the odds of the House GOP sinking any money into a Witwer reelect aren’t great.

If one happens to emerge, Witwer will be able to claim that she stood for jobs and economic development for this region.

On the other side of the coin is Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, who boldly told the Senate floor last month: “I have voted against more than 99% of corporate subsidy programs during my time in the Legislature.”

And then he voted against SORA. To be fair, he wasn’t alone. But his conservative Republican colleagues who joined him aren’t running for Congress.

Barrett is. Not only is he running for Congress, he’s running for Congress against incumbent Elissa Slotkin in the one part of Michigan that is apparently going to benefit from this investment the most.

In voting no against SORA and the $1 billion spending bill that followed, Barrett is taking a huge political gamble.

Sure, maybe this project flames out like the much-ballyhooed FoxConn project that flopped in Wisconsin. Maybe there will be big-time buyer’s remorse, like Hamtramck and Detroit experienced after they ponied up $300 million to flatten 1,200 homes in Poletown back in the 1980s.

Will voters know that for sure in November when they’re heading to the polls? Barrett can say he didn’t want to sink taxpayers’ money into a corporate giveaway.

But Slotkin is going to remind voters that this money isn’t going to a nameless, faceless entity.

All that money. All those jobs. They’re advertised to be coming here.

(Email Kyle Melinn, of the Capitol news service MIRS at melinnky@gmail.com. His column appears weekly in City Pulse.)

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