Road funding stalls as state elections near

At a meeting in his Upper Peninsula district a few months ago, Republican state Sen. Tom Casperson was approached by a Tea Party member, who suggested the state build a four-lane highway across the U.P.

Would he be willing to pay for it with higher taxes? Casperson asked. No way, the Tea Partier answered. Find the money somewhere else. Eliminate waste, whatever, but no more taxes.

Months later, Casperson, an Escanaba Republican, was still dumbfounded. “You want us to build a new highway when we don’t have enough money to maintain the roads we already have?” he said.

That’s the dilemma Gov. Rick Snyder is facing as he tries to win legislative approval for an additional $1.3 billion a year to fix Michigan’s roads – an amount experts who study Michigan’s roads say is generous yet may not be enough. Snyder’s supporters see two opportunities to push the increase through the Legislature this year: now when voters are angry about potholes after a brutal winter, or in a lame-duck session after this November’s elections.

Few dispute that the state’s roads are in terrible shape and getting worse, yet there appears to be little agreement over what to do about it.

“I think there are about 150 people in the state who don’t believe we have bad roads. The problem is, many of them are in the Legislature.” – Rich Studley, president Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

House Speaker Jase Bolger and Rep. Wayne Schmidt, both Republicans, last week unveiled a plan they said would increase annual funding for roads by $500 million, a little more than a third of what Snyder is asking. The plan would eliminate the current flat 19 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and 15 cents on diesel and replace them with a 6 percent tax on a gallon of both fuels. The proposal also called for shifting some other taxes and fees, increasing efficiency in the Michigan Department of Transportation and demanding better warranties on new roads.

Snyder’s office released a statement calling Bolger’s plan “a great first step to really get and keep the conversation, and ultimate solution, moving forward.” Bolger acknowledged the plan would not raise as much money as Snyder is seeking, but he said it “offers a solid base that further solutions could be built upon.”

That could mean changing how roads are funded in the next few months, and then raising the fuel tax after this November’s election. Before last week’s announcement, Schmidt, chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he favors replacing the current gasoline and diesel tax with a wholesale tax on fuel, but leaving it “revenue neutral” for now. Lawmakers later could increase the fuel tax in a lame-duck session, he said.

“The old adage is you eat an elephant one bite at a time,” the Traverse City Republican said then. “This is the first bite.”

Whether that plan stands a chance of passing the House and Senate remains uncertain, since many Republicans oppose any tax increase, and Democrats aren’t in a hurry to help Snyder in an election year.

“I think there are about 150 people in the state who don’t believe we have bad roads,” Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley said, before Bolger announced his alternative to Snyder’s plan. “The problem is, many of them are in the Legislature. There is no organized campaign in favor of bad roads.”

There is, however, an organized campaign in favor of raising fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, but whether it has the political muscle to overcome opposition from Tea Party groups and their supporters is uncertain.

The state chamber is part of a coalition of more than 50 business groups, labor unions and corporations called the Michigan Transportation Team advocating for more road funding. Its members include groups that seldom agree on anything, such as the Teamsters and the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

Snyder gets it from both sides

Devoting more funds, and the jobs they would create, to road projects would ordinarily draw support from Democrats. But Dems show little interest in helping Snyder, and, in fact, see an election-year campaign issue. The Michigan Democratic State Central Committee has set up a website blaming the Republican governor, who is facing reelection, for the deterioration of the state’s roads. “Are you mad about the roads?” it asks. “Have you ever seen them so bad? We have one person to thank for it - Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.”

But Snyder’s greatest challenge could be in winning support from members of his own party. Four Republican members of the Michigan Senate and 14 in the House have signed a no-tax pledge with Americans for Tax Reform, the Washington-based group led by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Even among those who have not signed the pledge there appears to be little inclination to raise taxes, even as Michigan roads crumble.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a Tea Party favorite, said Snyder’s proposal stands no chance of passing this year.
“There are plenty of people with Ph.D.’s in Lansing who would like to go off and raise taxes,” said Colbeck, a Canton Township Republican. “There’s no way in heck I’d vote for a tax increase.”

Instead, he outlined a plan calling for the state to use some of this year’s projected budget surplus for road repairs. MDOT should build roads better so they need less maintenance, he said, and he suggested the state find other ways of raising money, such as selling advertising space on highway overpasses and planting hay in freeway medians and selling it to farmers.

“There are plenty of people with Ph.D.’s in Lansing who would like to go off and raise taxes. There’s no way in heck I’d vote for a tax increase.” – Sen. Patrick Colbeck, Canton Township Republican.

Snyder originally asked for $1.2 billion a year in 2011, but the proposal never went anywhere. His budget this year calls for $1.3 billion, but leaves details of how to raise that open for discussion.

Before Bolger released his plan, the administration had drafted its own bill that would eliminate the current 19-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline and 15 cents on diesel, replacing them with a tax on the wholesale price of fuel that would increase with the rise in construction costs. Gasoline and diesel would be taxed at the same rate. The plan also calls for an increase in annual registration fees for cars and trucks.

“It’s a question of getting someone to introduce it, which hasn’t been easy,” Snyder aide Bill Rustem said. “The governor put out a proposal two years ago, and all we got was criticism. What’s the alternative?”

This is the third time Rustem has taken on the issue, first as an aide to former Gov. William Milliken, later as an employee of Public Sector Consultants during the administration of former Gov. John Engler.

“This is never easy,” Rustem said of asking lawmakers to see the long-term benefits of road funding. “Term limits have made it harder, no question. If you’re there for only six years, it’s hard to look long-term at problems, but it’s necessary. Something’s going to happen. It has to.”

Since 1993, members of the Michigan House have been limited to three two-year terms and the Senate to a pair of four-year terms. “It’s almost like you don’t have time to sit down and build relationships,” said Casperson, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Tax entanglements

The issue, he said, is complicated by Michigan’s unusual tax structure. In addition to the 19-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline and 15 cents on diesel, Michigan collects a six percent sales tax on fuel, which, at current prices, is about 23 cents a gallon. As a result, Michigan’s total tax on fuel is among the highest in the nation.

But the six percent sales tax is earmarked for education and the state’s general fund, not for transportation.

Casperson proposed eliminating the sales tax on gasoline and diesel, raising the fuel tax for road improvements, and then finding other money for education and the general fund, possibly with a 1-cent increase in the sales tax on other products and services. The problem is that changing the sales tax would require a statewide vote of the people, never an easy task. On the other hand, it would give legislators political cover, since it would be voters, not them, increasing the tax.

Looking for waste, finding none

Former state Rep. Rick Olson said he understands the reluctance of his former colleagues to raise taxes, especially in an election year. The one-term Republican from Washtenaw County, said he was skeptical when Snyder called for the $1.2-billion-a-year increase in fuel taxes and registration fees three years ago. “I kept asking questions and asking questions, because I didn’t quite believe the number,” Olson said.

As a member of the House Transportation Committee and with a Stanford law degree and a background in statistics, he began digging into it. He looked for waste in the state transportation budget, and “I kept coming up dry,” he said. “I just didn’t find it. At some point you have to conclude it’s just not there.”

Olson left the Legislature in 2012 after his seat was redistricted into a more-Democratic leaning one, but he continued working on the issue as a volunteer. Now employed by the House Republican Policy Office, Olson emphasized his opinion on road funding is his own personally.

After feeding data on the conditions of Michigan’s roads into an MDOT computer program, he concluded the $1.2 billion (since raised to $1.3 billion) Snyder was seeking isn’t enough. It likely would take closer to $1.4 billion yearly to maintain the roads as they are, he said, and nearly $2.2 billion a year to improve them.

“When I actually dug into it and found out what the facts were, I became a believer,” Olson said. “I didn’t want what I got, but that’s what the facts showed.”

As for his former colleagues in the Legislature, “Maybe enough of them will have the courage to do what needs to be done,” he said. “That’s my hope. Is it likely? I don’t know.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 04/10/2014 - 8:37am
"Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a Tea Party favorite, “There’s no way in heck I’d vote for a tax increase.”............Instead, he outlined a plan calling for ............. MDOT should build roads better so they need less maintenance, he said, and he suggested the state find other ways of raising money, such as selling advertising space on highway overpasses and planting hay in freeway medians and selling it to farmers." This is who's driving the bus?!!!!! I doubt that the Governors $2B request includes building "better" roads. That would require MORE money. I'm actually surprised he didn't suggest just going back to gravel roads, which would fit his 17th century thinking. The inmates have taken over the asylum.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:00am
"or in a lame-duck session after this November’s elections." Haven't we heard this song and dance before on other issues? The election cycle never really ends, some are term limited from office but have aspirations to run for something else (i.e. state rep to state senate) and they could still be worried about what their votes could mean for the future.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:20am
They could've done something in the last lame duck....but at least we have RTW. Lol
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:22am
... planting hay in freeway medians and selling it to farmers.” As silly as this sounds I have seen something similar flying into the Brussels, Belgium airport years ago and seeing cornfields planted in the space between the runways.
Fri, 04/11/2014 - 1:41am
Hay in the median-Up in flames as soon as a cig is flicked out a car window.
sue harvey
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:31am
Sheep in the median instead of paying mowers? I can come up with some ideas too. Sad, sad. The " pure Michigan" campaign will quickly become the "poor #!@? Michigan" when the out state tourists blow a few tires or lose an axle. This idea of refunding taxes amounts to about $ 40 for our household. Add that to the road funds.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:53am
Perhaps the Bridge could provide some details on what putting $2Billion a year into the State economy would do. We always seem to look at taxes/fees etc. as a one-way street.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:26am
Road building is notoriously bad at creating jobs, look at the stimulus. Building transit actually creates and sustains jobs, much more cost effective if you're taking the economic development route.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 2:03pm
It may be "bad", but somebody is getting paid to do the work, supply the materials etc. (it doesn't All go in politician's pockets)
George Ehlert
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:00am
How about a new ad campaign: Pure Michigan: Lakes full of water - True Michigan: Potholes full of water Pure Michigan: Snow flakes falling - True Michigan: Bridges Falling Pure Michigan: Moguls on Ski Hills - True Michigan: Moguls on Roads When will our "Leaders" learn it is not fiscally responsible to let infrastructure decay. What part of "pay me now" or "Pay me a lot more later" don't they understand.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:19am
Sen. Colbeck types are what's wrong with Lansing and DC.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:44am
We need to raise money for our terrible road system. I favor taxing fuel by percentage as when fuel prices increase, road maintainance costs increase. If 6% isn't sufficient, let's go to 10%. Sure it would increase fuel prices a lot, but it wouldn't be as noticeable in the marketplace, given the huge swings we've seen the past years. And it might stimulate more consumer interest in fuel consumption.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 1:40pm
The infrastructure of our entire country is outdated & falling apart. NOW is the time for action! It's my belief term limits were imposed on Michigan lawmakers to deter cronyism & inaction. We need to let it be known, whether democrat or republican, our roads need attention and we expect our lawmakers to work together to get this done before the whole state resembles Detroit.
Roger Rayle
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 3:33pm
Meme for Michigan's road maintenance budget's happening this pothole season is a lesson on things to come for legislators who do not understand that Government = Infrastructure ... be it transportation, information, education, water, public health, etc. ... core things that make us civilized.
Fri, 04/11/2014 - 10:51am
So, Where's all this transparency and openness in government that Republicans like to talk about? Passing a gas tax increase in lame duck because they're afraid of the Teabilly wing of their party. What a bunch of cowards.
John S.
Mon, 04/14/2014 - 10:48pm
The political scenario reminds me of a video showing penguins on a cliff along the Antarctica coastline very hungry but reluctant to jump in the sea because there are killer whales swimming offshore eager to catch, kill, and eat them. A few get jostled into the sea by the crowd and, sure enough, get taken by the killer whales. The solution is obvious, but hard to carry out. Let all Republican legislators take a pledge to leap at once (enact a gas tax) and pledge to stand together proudly for the State of Michigan and its citizens, and defy those ferocious tea baggers out there who are eager to capture, chew them up, and spit them out at the next primary election. Solidarity! If enough Republicans jump, the tea baggers will be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Republican legislators who have jumped.
Wed, 04/16/2014 - 8:39am
Rick Olson says there is no waste. I see them removing galvanized signs and moving them 2 feet and replacing them. The whole road not just the bad ones. They now put mile markers by the tenth of a mile. With this mentality I can just guess at the waste on the big decisions we don't see.