By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (Jan. 31, 2020) — During her state of the state address Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced she would use the State Transportation Commission to increase road funding by $3.5 billion through bond purchases, claiming the legislature’s intransigence as onus for the move.
Now an organization created two weeks before her speech, called The Road to Michigan’s Future (ROMF), has bought nearly $750,000 in airtime throughout the state to praise the plan, according to data from the firm Advertising Analytics. The organization began purchasing time to run ads through February less than 24 hours after Whitmer's speech unveiled the plan, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission. Filings with WWJ-TV in Detroit even imply ROMF made requests to run ads the same day as the speech.
“Last year Governor Gretchen Whitmer put a bold plan on the table to start fixing our roads, but instead of working across the aisle, legislators put up roadblocks to road repairs,” ROMF’s website says. “Now Governor Whitmer is rolling up her sleeves and getting it done. Her new bonding plan is smart, it’s fiscally responsible, and it will fix twice as many state roads over the next five years.”
Nearly half of the spending is for ads on broadcast and cable TV stations in Detroit, where much of the repairs will take place. Others will be aired around Grand Rapids, Lansing and Flint. The 30-second spots begin running today and will air through February. It concludes with a narrator saying "when she said," before cutting to a clip of Whitmer saying, "it's about time we fix the damn roads," and the narrator intones "she meant it."
The non-profit, Road to Michigan’s Future, registered with the state on January 15th as a 501(c)(4). The designation as a “social welfare” organization means it does not have to disclose donors, though the newness of the organization means they would be obscured for some time regardless.
The IRS did not have any immediately available records for any entities named “Road to Michigan’s Future,” indicating the organization was recently established.
While most registration information is hidden, the incorporator on state documents is listed as Richard Wiener, a former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, longtime lobbyist and chief of staff to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Wiener did not return MCFN’s repeated requests for comment. His LinkedIn profile describes him as “semi-retired.”
In state documents, the organization claimed it works in part to provide “an understanding of how current policy initiatives will affect their well-being, including the importance of investing in state and local roads and other infrastructure.” 501(c)(4) organizations are required by the IRS to engage primarily in social welfare activities, rather than political activities directly supporting candidates. In practice, however, these nonprofits often describe their spending as “education” or “issue advocacy,” despite explicitly praising politicians.