Pay for roads and college now, or pay later

Remember the oil filter ad from the 1970s, where the gruff, grease-stained car mechanic scowls at the camera and says, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later?”

That’s exactly what we are facing in Michigan. Only it’s been that way for a decade when it comes to dealing with the stuff – the fancy word is “infrastructure” – that will define much of our future: The condition of our roads and the quality of our young people’s minds.

Roads first. It’s been a long and terrible winter, and the thaw we’re seeing these days sure is welcome. But today’s thaw means tomorrow’s potholes. The harder the winter, the more and deeper the potholes. And the more expensive, especially when you discover that big thud you heard when you were driving home means a trip to the shop for a tire and a maybe a new wheel.

To his credit, Gov. Rick Snyder has been pushing for years for the big money needed to fix our roads. But it’s an election year, so of course the legislature has been doing everything possible to avoid facing facts and coming up with the money everybody knows we need to fix our concrete ribbons.

The first step in this year’s political pander dance was for a couple Republican senators to propose – what else? – a tax cut. But when it turned out that would pay for, maybe, a couple of lattes at the local Starbucks, support cooled. And when we got the thaw and as people gasped at the potholes, the political class began to re-think.

I’m told by Lansing insiders that legislators, regardless of party, are being pounded big time to do something about the roads. “Something” may not mean the $1.2 billion per year that Gov. Snyder has been talking about, but it’s got to be a serious, long-term program to bring our roads into the 21st Century, not just a few slabs of cold patch and a thin skin of new paving.

If it’s ever going to be done politically, it will have to be done pretty quickly, while folks are seeing firsthand just how much it costs everybody to shirk taking care of basic infrastructure.

Investing in our students

Now consider our colleges and universities. They are just as basic as the roads to our future, since they have to do with the talent and skills of our young people.

Disgracefully, over the past decade, state spending on higher ed has been cut by more than half. The result has been rapidly rising college tuition … and mushrooming student debt, which is now an average of $29,000 per graduate, according to the higher education data website CollegeInSight.org.

The nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency reports state support used to cover more than half a college degree’s cost. Today, it’s only around 20 per cent. Michigan is one of the few states in the nation that spends more on warehousing felons in our prison system than on educating our young people.

In his State of the State message in January, Gov. Snyder proposed increasing support for higher education by 6.1 per cent. Many people, led by Business Leaders for Michigan, are saying it’s about time. But, politics has a way of getting in the way, especially in an election year.

So far, much of the debate has been dominated by legislators who seem to think an uneducated workforce will guarantee prosperity for us all.

Democratic lawmakers, who usually favor increased support for higher education, have been largely silent on the subject, probably because they don’t want to make the governor look good.

How come? Democrats think it is good politics to bash Gov. Snyder for short changing the schools. And because spending on both schools and colleges is bundled in an “omnibus” bill, they don’t want to join in a bipartisan vote for passage – even at the risk of hurting our universities, young people, their families and our future.

Higher education increases lifetime earnings. According to the Anderson Economic Group, median wages for Michigan workers with a BA are $20,000 higher than those with only a high school diploma; the gap widens to $40,000 for those with advanced degrees.

And, according to the Lumina Foundation, which is designed to increase the number of Americans with degrees, we’ll need an additional 900,000 workers with an associate’s degree or higher to meet the workforce demands of the next decade.

So here we have two cases – roads and colleges – in which partisan politics is preventing our lawmakers from taking long overdue essential actions for our long-term good.

To be fair, most lawmakers are good people who start out running for office to make things better. But as their re-election dates draw near, their calculus has a way of changing.

Maybe we should arrange to play that old “pay me now or pay me later,” at party caucuses and both houses of the legislature.

For its message is even more relevant than ever: Paying now for long-term essentials makes far more sense and is far better – and far cheaper – than paying later.

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Comments

Jim Vollmers
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 8:43am
Here! Here! Everyone with a brain between their ears knows that Mr. Powers is writing the truth. The "cut taxes" mantra of the tea party is leading us down the road to become a backwater where there are little or no public services. Businesses don't want to locate in a state that refuses to invest in it's own infrastructure. The proper approach is to figure out the correct level of taxes, spread equally between citizens and businesses, to meet the needs of the average citizen and the merchant community. That would include a first class transportation system and high quality, publicly funded education system.
Duane
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 8:28pm
JIm, You sound like Mr. Power's echo, all 'good intentions' and no interest in results. You want to spend freely with other people's money and don't care one bit (not a word said) about what those people get in return. When do you or Mr. Power ever mention holding the colleges/univerisities accountable for how they spend the money? I guess I respect people, such as the 'tea party', that are concerned about what it takes for people to earn that money you are so quick to spend more then I do those who simply want to spend it without accountablity.
Mike R
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 9:33am
Right on the money (pun intended), Mr. Vollmers. Ironically, the "cut all taxes and spend no money" mentality of the Tea Party and the mainstream Republicans who fear it has swung the pendulum so far to the extreme that it will, if it hasn't already, hurt the State's prospects of landing the businesses the cuts theoretically are supposed to bait.
Eric
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 11:08am
The problem I have with Snyder is that he could've spent his political capital on important issues like these, rather than wasting any consensus he had on RTW and other polarizing societal issues.
dlb333
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 11:22am
I agree with Erik. Snyder has had a few decent ideas, but none of them pass the ultraconservative legislature. If he stopped supporting the ultraconservative agenda on RTW and social issues, he might be able to bridge with some Democrats on issues like roads and education. A combination of factors, including declining infrastructure, conservative political climate, and lack of creative, stimulating jobs are driving educated, creative young people out of state. It is sad to see and will contribute to the decline of Michigan.
Neil
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 1:25pm
I agree the surplus should be used for roads and education. Looking at roads: more black topping and highways without an underpinning foundation is just pouring money into the ground. Water must must drained off below the road, so it is not available to freeze and expand as it does now. Another hard winter will just tear the repaired roads up next year.
Gene Markel
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 2:35pm
Much can be saved in the repair of potholes by preventing them. The process is simple. Change the way the expansion joints in our concert roads are sealed. The current method is to place a mechanical seal in the joint. This seal will last approximately one year. Water will penetrate pats the mechanical seal. freeze and thaw forces the seal out of the joint. You can see the end of a seal protruding from the joint at the edge of the pavement or lying in the road way. The seal is that black strip next to an expansion joint. I call them pothole worms. The solution is simple. Inject a polymer in the joint that will seal water from penetrating the expansion joint. It is currently used an Michigan Roads. If you drive down a patch of concert road and there no potholes it most likely that the expansion joints have been sealed with the polymer. The mechanical seals are great where the weather never goes below freezing but that is not the case in Michigan. Please pass this along to the nerd. Maybe the sealing method can be written into future road construction.
Duane
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 8:44pm
Gene, You are right, but that sounds too much like wanting value for the money being spent. I wonder if there are other ways we could pay a bit more up front and get longer life out of our infastructure, it seems Mr. Power nor anyone else that is so intent on spending other people's money ever seems to care. I have yet to read an article by Mr. Power that has mentioned value for money spent or accountablity. That is disappointing because it would seem the best point of getting better value would be with controlling the spending.
Matt
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 5:51pm
Re Investing in our students, First, right off the bat you misstated the study, which Is that the students WITH debt had an average of $29k. This is very different than your statement that graduates had an average of $29k in debt! Second, given that 37% of our college graduates leave the state and almost 50% of college graduates end up in jobs that don't require any college it seems that we are in need of answers to much more basic questions than your incessant call for more spending acknowledges.
Slant6bob
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 8:55am
Phil - a good start. Gov't, particularly state government, has many responsibilities, but two of the main ones are infrastructure and education. This legislature has completely failed in these two areas. But, I think you miss the point on infrastructure investment. The Governor proposed a $1.2 billion fix over two years ago. While our legislators fiddled, the price tag has gone up (and this winter only exasperated the situation). Pennsylvania, which has a road system about the size of Michigan, just passed a massive $2.3 billion per year funding package. Virginia, Maryland and other states have done the same. We have a documented $3 billion problem. Any legislative fix under $1 billion is a fraud on the Michigan public - they will think we are solving a problem, when, in fact, will not be addressing our infrastructure issues. Frankly, anything less than $2 billion will only be a band aid. We need to make up for decades of disinvestment and we need to do it now.
Jonathan Ramlow
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 1:39pm
The preferred political approach to big problems like these seems to start with identifying the most palatable(read: "No tax increases!") ways to allocate money. I think this is a "cart before the horse" approach that results in stingy funding and band-aid solutions. It would be much better to have objective observers (perhaps from other states) tell us what it would really cost to upgrade our roads and bridges to mid-21st century standards and what it would cost to fund our higher education system at, say, twice the level of funding we devote to jails and prisons. These estimates would come as ranges, the low end for barely good enough and the high end for as good or better than all other states. The politicians could then be allowed to pick a target level in the range suggested and figure out ways of raising that much money as soon as possible. Again, my suggestion is that we first decide how good we want our infrastructure and education systems to be, get estimates for the actual costs from disinterested analysts, and then start thinking about how to raise exactly that much money from every conceivable revenue source.
George Williams
Mon, 04/14/2014 - 6:29pm
According to DegreeRegistry.org , a general MBA can be obtained for as little as $6k and as high as $120k. If students would do a little research, they would find that it is not nearly as expensive to get a college degree