LANSING — With the state House on summer break, the answer to Michigan’s roads funding problem will spend the summer in the Senate.
Business groups and lobbyists working on behalf of the roads industry have offered recommendations to Republican Senate leaders, who are meeting behind closed doors to work out their version of a plan to fix the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and his spokeswoman, Amber McCann, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
It’s unclear when the Senate GOP caucus will introduce its proposal, or whether it plans to take up any of the 12 bills passed by the House this month. But McCann said in a June 11 Detroit Free Press report she doesn’t believe the chamber will vote on any bills until its own plan is ready.
A group led by Meekhof, R-West Olive, and other Republican senators is exploring cuts to the state’s existing budget, diverting other revenue and generating new money as part of its plan to come up with at least $1.2 billion needed annually to repair the state’s roads.
The House package, introduced by Republican lawmakers, would raise more than $1 billion by 2019 through mostly existing revenue and expected future revenue growth that would be set aside for roads.
The House plan would raise the diesel tax to match the 19-cent tax on regular fuel and charge user fees to drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles. Its more controversial pieces would divert money away from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and end an income tax credit for the working poor.
The House recessed after session wrapped last week, despite the urging of some business leaders and lawmakers to postpone vacations until a final roads funding deal was reached.
The chamber has added two session days each in July and August — for a total of six — and can add more if needed, said Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter. But he said the House can’t do much until the Senate returns with its plan.
The bills, D’Assandro said, are thoughtful and address Cotter’s priorities, starting with using existing revenue before asking taxpayers for more money.
But not everyone agrees.
“It was symbolic,” said Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing. “There are so many different pieces of that package that are dead on arrival with the Senate or dead on arrival with the governor that we know that package will not be the package that is approved when all is said and done.”
Singh said he won’t support any roads funding deal that doesn’t include a long-term, dedicated revenue source. His preference would be a combination of user fees or gas tax increases.
Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, has said he would be open to considering a fuel tax increase as part of a final package, but will not be the one to introduce it.
Rather than vote out bills in order to leave for vacation, Singh said, House leaders should have gone straight into negotiations with Gov. Rick Snyder and Senate leaders on a joint package they could have presented this summer.
“Why go through the theatrics of doing a House plan and then a Senate plan and then eventually getting the quadrant together with the governor to hash out the real plan?” Singh said.
“We know all of the facts, so let’s just get down to final negotiations.”
D’Assandro said Cotter will be in Lansing all summer and a roads deal is “our first priority.”
“We’re not really going to get a lot done on road funding until they come out with a plan,” D’Assandro said of the Senate. “It’d look great for PR (to stay in town), but we’re committed to getting it done.”
Some lobbyists, including the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, are urging the Senate to include new revenue as part of its proposal.
Michigan’s flat 19-cent fuel tax hasn’t increased since 1997. A combination of higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees could help the state come up with a chunk of revenue dedicated solely to roads, said Lance Binoniemi, MITA’s vice president of government affairs.
Voters soundly defeated a statewide ballot issue to pay for road repairs last month in part because it included a sales tax increase and funding for areas besides just roads, including schools and local governments.
“If they want to increase the gas tax in one fell swoop, the industry can handle that,” Binoniemi said. “If they think a gradual increase is more important, then eventually we’ll get to that goal and we’ll be comfortable with that, as well.”
Both he and Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for the nonprofit business advocacy group Business Leaders for Michigan, caution against transferring existing revenue to roads because of the potential for cuts elsewhere.
Using money from the state’s general fund and the MEDC, as the House proposed, “adversely impacts other critical priorities that help us grow our economy,” Chesney said. That includes funding for job training and economic development.
“As we’re making gains, this is not the time to pull back on those things that help us,” she said. “Other states aren’t standing still, and for us to be a competitive state, we need to continue to invest in those areas.”