Swearing, sex and the path to a roads deal

LANSING — Before the state House recently recessed, lawmakers repealed dozens of antiquated crimes and resolved to create a committee to investigate whether two of their colleagues are qualified to keep their jobs after an extramarital affair and apparent cover-up.

Legislators met behind closed doors, too — in caucus rooms and privately with Senate leaders and Gov. Rick Snyder — in an effort to break a stalemate that has blocked a road-funding deal for months.

Yet they emerged without a deal and seemingly still far apart on the fundamental piece of any successful plan — how much money is involved and who would pay. The Legislature is not expected back in session until after Labor Day.

Legislators and Snyder say they want to craft a long-term fix for Michigan’s failing roads and bridges. Some business groups, including the Detroit Regional Chamber, support taking time to come up with a permanent solution, provided lawmakers don’t drag their feet.

But the House — which last week voted to send some Senate-amended bills to a conference committee — also has been dealing this month with the fallout of a sex scandal involving freshmen Tea Party Republican Reps. Todd Courser, of Lapeer, and Cindy Gamrat, of Plainwell.

The House Business Office this week said it has preliminary findings that the two misused taxpayer resources based on a Detroit News report that disclosed audio recordings of Courser asking a staffer to send an email accusing himself of having sex with a male prostitute to divert attention from his relationship with Gamrat.

Lawmakers are under pressure to come up with an at least $1.2 billion road-funding plan in the wake of a failed ballot proposal in May, in part because this year’s construction season is winding down and governments want to start planning next year’s projects.

Is the scandal a distraction creating inaction on roads?

Maybe, though a bigger reason for impasse appears to be philosophical differences on how much existing spending should be diverted to roads and how much should be charged to drivers in higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Katie Carey, spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, said of Courser and Gamrat: “How could it not be a significant issue for the House Republicans?”

For the better part of a month, the two lawmakers have been the talk of Lansing. The House resolution to create its own investigative committee could lead to expulsion proceedings for both representatives, which would consume more time this fall away from debating roads, energy policy and no-fault auto insurance reform.

House Republicans say they can, and do, juggle multiple priorities at once.

“I don’t know that it’s taking away from anything,” said Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, of Courser and Gamrat. “I’ve seen firsthand that work continued on other priorities.”

That includes last week’s passage of “important criminal justice reform,” he said. Those reforms involved repealing outdated laws that made it a crime to swear in front of women or children or embellish the singing of the national anthem.

Debate over new revenue

Many of the lawmakers involved in negotiations say the willingness exists to reach a deal and talks are productive. More meetings between House and Senate leaders and Snyder are expected during the remainder of the Legislature’s summer recess.

There seems to be agreement that some new revenue will be part of a final compromise, said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. The challenge now is working out the dollar figures.

The latest proposed compromise would generate $600 million from existing funds and $600 million in new revenue, possibly from higher fuel taxes or vehicle registration fees. But Snyder and Democrats aren’t sold on the idea of using that much in current spending, and House Republicans so far have been unable to muster enough votes to pass a plan on their own.

Snyder opposes taking that much money away from other state departments, instead preferring a solution that raises some new revenue in higher gas taxes or registration fees. He said he is concerned about creating new funding problems elsewhere at the expense of fixing roads.

“That’s the accountant in me coming out,” Snyder told Crain’s from China, where he is on an eight-day trade mission, calling $600 million in general funds a “very challenging number.”

“Raising revenue doesn’t create the same set of issues,” he said. “When you talk about cutting spending in the general fund in particular, it’s like: ‘OK, what’s the trade-off there? What’s going to get cut and why?' That needs to be a very thoughtful discussion.”

Meekhof believes more cuts can be found in the state budget, McCann said, but also recognizes that not everyone — including the governor and some business groups — is willing to shrink the size of government to the same extent.

“I don’t think we’re talking about an insurmountable task by any means,” she said. “We accept that it’s going to take some time.”

Said D’Assandro, Cotter’s rep: “We’re closer than we’ve been in a long time.”

Approval ratings down

Still, the more time that passes without a deal, the more it could cost lawmakers.

Just 23 percent of local government leaders in Michigan believe the GOP-controlled Legislature is doing an “excellent” or “good” job, according to a new survey from the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan. That’s down from 28 percent a year ago, and fell most sharply among those who identify as Republican.

The share of municipal leaders who rate lawmakers’ job performance as “poor” is growing. That’s from a sampling taken this past spring, before lawmakers struggled to pass a plan this summer from competing proposals in the House and Senate.

Critics often cite May’s failed Proposal 1 ballot issue, which included a complicated mix of fuel and sales tax hikes, as an example of the dysfunction in Lansing, UM researchers said.

“Pointing to the choice to put road funding to a public vote rather than resolving it through legislation, many who think the state is on the wrong track express concerns that the state government — both legislature and executive — cannot govern effectively,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Local officials see a lack of leadership and an over-emphasis on partisan politics at the state level as hindering Michigan’s prosperity.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mon, 08/31/2015 - 7:34am
Snyder needs Democatic support to raise taxes because the level of support within his own party is not there, the Democracts want something in return but what can he offer them that will not offend his own party in the process? Dysfunctional govt. is pure Michigan.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 8:08am
Betcha if John. Engler was governor we would have a road bill. You have to know how the system works to make it functional. This is what you get when rookies run the show and you have self serving term limited worker bees.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 8:35am
What a sad commentary when we are stalled over fixing our roads and bridges over a sex scandal. People do your jobs and get things done. It's two people and this is the issue. Get real. R.L.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 9:05am
“Raising revenue doesn’t create the same set of issues” Right. It creates a different set of issues, foremost among them: We raise revenue for X, then over time we deprive X of the funding because we want to spend it on our other pet projects and cronyism. X ends up unfunded because...it's a "priority" that can be a political football. How weird is that? I also get a whiff that the liberal taxers would like to disincent driving..is that about AGW? We (75% of MI voters) see no reason to raise taxes to fund road repairs. [I don't agree with "journalism" that spins that.]
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 1:26pm
I am a conservative and in favor of raising taxes. It should be dedicated to fixing our roads and bridges.
Tue, 09/01/2015 - 9:57am
There is money in the budget to be cut without raising taxes. People should read the Michigan Capital Con article by Michael LaFaive that shows where they can cut $1.2 billion - yes billion - without any heartache. It is a must read. People just don't know about this (or don't have the time to sift through the State budget). We cut spending - we don't have to raise taxes. Or, even if we raised the gas tax a nickel, think people could deal with that. But first try cutting spending for non-essential things, and there are many, but it's all political payback.
Steve Smewing
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 9:27am
Even though the hold up has been extras attached to the road bill for some, think how easy it would be to find the money if one got to choose between the catastrophic claims law or same money to roads.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 10:17am
People are raising their local road taxes to fix the roads - and only the roads. Why can't Lansing do a CLEAN bill that raises revenue ONLY for road repair? Everyone agrees on this; the last initiative lost because of all the other stuff, snow mobile trails, and buses and special interest carve outs that get people mad. We want to stop buying tires and rims, and paying for front end alignments! Raise revenue to pay for roads, period.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 5:27pm
Pam Niwbrzydowski
Tue, 09/01/2015 - 2:45pm
On the money. Have heard so many legislators defend decisions with "the people spoke when they voted down the tax increase." No, the people said, " Raise taxes for roads only, no tie-bars."
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 12:01pm
'Legislators met behind closed doors, too — in caucus rooms and privately with Senate leaders and Gov. Rick Snyder — in an effort to break a stalemate that has blocked a road-funding deal for months.' This isn't a stalemate of months - it's many YEARS ! I can remember when our local GOP Rick 'Man of the People' Olson was made chair of the transportation committee and tried to get enough money to fix them. Got nothing even from his own party after 2 years (at least) and eventually they gerrymandered him out of legislature (in trade for a nice job on the bridge to Canada). Yes, YEARS. That's how stupid this GOP legislature and governor have been. Unable to even to agree upon and accomplish the simple 'fix the roads' stuff. People who hate government and getting things done for our state shouldn't be in a legislature at all.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 12:11pm
Michigan has painted itself into a corner with the idea of using taxes raised on road fuel to pay for its schools there by giving us one of the highest tax on fuel AND very low road funding at the same time. Correcting this mistake would be the first step to getting a sane situation. But getting our prison situation and costs brought into reality to free up some bucks is a close second!
John S.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 12:29pm
At this point, half a loaf is better than no loaf. Raise $600 million by raising the fuel taxes and registration fees. Perhaps the state legislature can commit itself, should state revenues increase down the road, to gradually removing the sales tax on fuels. Although Republicans are ultimately responsible for the problem (due to the no tax increase Republicans), as the weaker party, the Democrats have continually expanding the scope of the conflict (raising a lot of tangential issues). There may be some slack in the state's budget, but as the bean counting governor is arguing, it's nowhere near $600 million.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 1:35pm
From what I have read the Governor and the Deomcrats are trying to attach other government spending [politics as usual] to the Republican legislation. As I recall that one of the findings after the no vote earlier this year was that voters were discourage by there being so many things other than roads being funded with the vote. There are comments here that reiterate that same concern. If it is true that the Republicans were focused on legislation that would only include roads [along voters desired] and the Governor and Democrats are trying to dilute those efforts why wouldn't that be of interest to readers?
Kristi Droppers
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 2:28pm
Oh my goodness. Seriously, the legislature is going to use the excuse of an affair by two far right, evangelical zealots of not passing legislature to move our state forward beginning with fixing our roads. Disgraceful. The pathetic nature of our state government is so embarrassing. How is it possible that we still don’t have a roads bill passed? And, people wonder why Donald Trump is getting so much buzz! It’s because we have STUPIDLY elected incompetency at every level in the government that care nothing for their constituents. Our Governor and legislature should be ashamed. Simple as that. They are inept, out of touch (which often mean self absorbed) and obviously incapable (and this usually means stupid) of really governing. Michigan has been sliding in every major state development area for years. Our ranking and statistics regarding school quality, employment, innovation sink every year. Without quality roads there is no way we can attract business, which attracts jobs which contributes to quality education. It is all linked. This is not rocked science...it is block and tackle government. Gosh I hope someone in government reads these Bridge posting and readers’ comments and becomes frighteningly aware that people are fed up and people will sooner (I can only hope) demand a state government that works.
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 4:06pm
I was surprised to see this article didn't mention the 2016 ballot proposal, by Citizens For Fair Taxes, which purports to solve this problem the majority in the Legislature can't seem to accomplish.
Fed Up w/Politicians
Tue, 09/01/2015 - 10:41am
Problem is we have Republican career politicians who find it easier to raise taxes than make cuts. Why not start making cuts with a part-time legislator? Another huge problem is there will be no locked box for the increase in tax money collected, therefore, once the increase goes through I can almost guarantee in another 8-10 years the roads won't be improved and the legislature will not have a clue where the money went. I'd rather see legislators go part time, cut salaries in order to show me they are serious about their jobs. (That most likely will never happen).
Ann Abdoo
Tue, 09/01/2015 - 3:57pm
Businesses were given a $1.2 billion tax break, the same amount of money that is needed to fix our roads. Tax breaks for businesses do not create jobs; employers do not hire more people than they need. What creates more jobs is an increase in the demand for goods and services. Our State Legislature and the Governor were totally irresponsible in taking this action. They need to do the right thing and revoke the tax break.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 8:16pm
I have absolutely no< problems with Michigan moving to a part-time legislature if this is the best excuse TPTB can come up with on why they cannot prioritize spending like the rest of us who live in Michigan are expected to do.
Doug Curry
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 4:32pm
It is high time to accept the fact that repairing our roads is a new expense and requires a new revenue source to pay for it. Taking away from established programs, assumed that they are still needed and are effective, is a terrible idea.
Henry Bareiss
Mon, 09/14/2015 - 1:51pm
It doesn't matter if there is a "willingness" to find a solution. The only thing that matters is that these "legislators" get it done. So far they can only be regarded as incompetent. It doesn't matter if philosophical differences is the problem, unless your avowed goal is to sabotage the government. If the government can't govern, if it can't do its work, the legislators are incompetent. Let's call them that because that is what they are.