LANSING — Before the state House recently recessed, lawmakers repealed dozens of antiquated crimes and resolved to create a committee to investigate whether two of their colleagues are qualified to keep their jobs after an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