Fact Squad | Dueling ads take on Gov. Whitmer and those damn Michigan roads

The Republican Governors Association is accusing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of failing to fix roads, one week after she borrowed $3.5 billion to begin repairing highways.

One year into office, Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads” is the subject of TV and digital ads with opposite messages.

Road to Michigan’s Future, a nonprofit started by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Chief of Staff Richard Wiener, is airing an ad that says  Whitmer’s bonding plan will “start fixing the roads now… no politics, no tax increases, just action.”

The Republican Governors Association contends she’s leaving Michigan with “broken roads, broken promises.” Its ad is punctuated with President Trump saying “she’s not fixing those potholes” at a recent rally in Battle Creek.

The claims

Are Michigan’s roads the worst in the nation, as Road to Michigan’s Future claims? 

Some studies say yes. Others say they’re below average, but not the worst. 

The central claim of each ad is the opposite of the other: Is Whitmer fixing the roads despite Republican resistance, or is she not fixing the roads despite Republicans’ attempts to help?

The facts 

Last week, Whitmer announced she’d nearly double the state’s spending on highways and bridges over the next five years by issuing $3.5 billion in bonds

As Road to Michigan’s Future notes correctly, that won’t require new taxes — but it will require the state to spend up to $300 million annually paying back the loans with interest, and the state is still paying back more than $1 billion in old road construction bonds from more than a decade ago. 

Whitmer’s administration argues the interest rates for the bonds are low; if she doesn’t act now, inflation and continued degradation of the roads would outpace the cost of the bond interest.

But the Road to Michigan’s Future ad prominently features local roads, which are generally in worse shape than highways and wouldn’t get fixed under Whitmer’s borrowing.

The bonds can only be used to build or repair interstates, U.S. highways and smaller highways. It will be primarily directed to highways with high traffic volumes like metro Detroit.

Whitmer and GOP leaders agree that it’s no long-term fix for Michigan’s underfunded roads. Nonpartisan experts estimate the state would need at least an additional $2 billion annually to repair roads and bridges, and the bonds won’t pay for local road repairs, as Whitmer’s original 45-cent-gas tax increase proposal would. 

But it will certainly do something immediately after a year of little change –  and after nearly a decade of Republican control of Lansing in which the roads continued to deteriorate.

Here’s how last year’s road funding battle played out:

  • In early 2019, Whitmer proposed a 45-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. It would have made Michigan’s gas tax the highest in the nation and raised around $2.5 billion per year for roads and bridges. 
  • Republicans rejected it outright. So did most Michiganders
  • Republicans offered at least three alternatives they say would have raised between $1.25 and $2.25 billion, all of which would have involved removing the sales tax on fuel and replacing it with a gas tax dedicated to roads and refinancing pension payments for public school employees. 
  • Whitmer rejected those, saying they were “fiscally bad ideas” and put teachers and students at risk. Republicans say Whitmer wouldn’t budge from her 45 cent gas tax and Democrats say the GOP never offered viable plans. 
  • Whitmer eventually backed off on a promise to veto any budget without road funding when it became clear a deal wouldn’t be struck before the Oct. 1 deadline to fund state government.
  • Republicans included $400 million in one-time road and bridge funding in the budget, more than half of which would have been restricted to fix four bridges. Whitmer vetoed $375 million of it, arguing it was a stopgap solution.

The conclusion

Whitmer herself acknowledges that the $3.5 billion raised through bonds won’t fully fulfill her central campaign promise, but the Road to Michigan Future ad correctly notes it’s a “start.”

It may be a stretch for the ad to claim Lansing lawmakers “keep putting up roadblocks to road repairs,” when what Republicans did was take no action on an unpopular tax proposal. 

But the Republican Governors Association ad gives the false impression that Whitmer has done nothing at all for roads and “broken promises.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Bob Dunn
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 9:05am

I know this has been suggested previously. Let each county be allowed to raise gas taxes by a certain amount. This money would go toward local roads in the county. Gasoline companies now raise and lower prices all the time. The same gas can be .10 or more difference 3 blocks away. So having different gas prices from county to county would not be a problem. Since the state cannot figure a way to solve the problem let the local people decide if they want to improve their roads.

Jim Ross
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 9:15am

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Dammit! (Politics)

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 9:22am

What is all the federal road money being used for? from the map most of the construction will be on the expressways federal money! And were did the billion in road money go? How did the last three (3) governor spend it,,, HOW much money went to Carlo road construction on NO BID contracts? I worked in a field that dealt with MIDOT I seen a lot of kick backs!!! The State AG needs to look into this and get the money back!!!
Also were is the money coming from to build and maintain all them bike paths????

Karen Dunnam
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 10:54am

"Also were [sic] is the money coming from to build and maintain all them bike paths????"

The revenue source for a non-motorized facility depends on the right-of-way. For instance, bike paths going in along interstates come from federal highway funds. In locations where no sidepaths or sidewalks exist, a jurisdiction can apply for federal funding.
Some bike paths are funded by private donations from foundations, with maintenance done by volunteer "friends of" groups.
Here in Grand Rapids, roadway striping is revised as part of a "road diet." An arterial street near me had four lanes of traffic and drew high-speed commuter traffic; restriping made it into two travel lanes, a designated left-turn lane, and two bike lanes. Speeds are lower, crashes are diminished, everyone is more able to use it to get where they need to go.
Also in GR, we passed a dedicated millage (1.5) to repair our municipal roadways.

Jeffrey Kless
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 3:57pm

If as you say you saw kick backs you are either a coward for not reporting them or you are lying about kick backs. There is no doubt the paving industry has a history of bid collusion as happened in the 70's and I am sure that the possibility exists now. But not to report it does not speak highly of you you because your inaction is collusion

Sun, 02/09/2020 - 3:12am

Asking folks to just voluntarily become a whistle blower is asking a lot from some people. Trust me I know. I lost my job/career when I reported some issues to the Governor's Office. Instead we should allow the Michigan Auditor General investigate these types of issues and recommend appropriate corrective action.

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 7:04pm

Jennifer Granholm used the Federal money for shovel ready jobs to balance the budget. I don't know how what Snyder did, but I don't believe we were given any Federal money. In the township I live in, the bike paths are funded by the residents of the township. Can't speak for what other cities and townships do. Agree with you about Carlo. Had a conversation with someone who worked for our county road commission and he said that no matter how many times the subject came up, paying a little more for better quality was always voted down.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 10:14am

So Ms. Beggin, would The Bridge's Fact Squad care to explain the consistent "omission" on your part of then-candidate Whitmer's claim made during the gubernatorial debate back in '18 relating to her raising taxes to "fix the damn roads".

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 10:38am

Your comment doesn't make sense in relation to the article. If you think the roads are going to be fixed without additional funding I think you are living in a dream world. If you think gutting funding in education is the solution, you are also living in a dream world.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 11:10am

No Bernadette, what I'm saying is that even Gretchen Wbitmer knew full well was that her admitting any tax hike being a component in her "fix the damn roads" strategy, that she would be Citizen Whitmertoday and not Governor Whitmer.

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 12:15pm

If they would have designated it for the roads to begin with when they kept increasing taxes, we wouldn't be here. Why does my money have to pay for their pensions? I think there needs to be an audit to see if there are any duplicate/unnecessary programs our taxes are paying for.

Sat, 02/08/2020 - 12:10am

What I got from Kevin's remarks was that Gov. Whitmer didn't mention the 45 cent gas taxes during her campaign and yet the Truth Squad makes no mention of that. It would seem that it appears that the Governor had a hidden agenda last campaign, that would seem to be a point of interest when discussing ads, road funding, the Governor, and truth in advertising. I can understand it would be an inconvenient truth for this article.
"...but the Road to Michigan Future ad correctly notes it’s a “start.”" I wonder what it is a 'start' of, has there been a single 'shovel' strike a road for repair paid by any of this bonding money or could it be a 'start' spending similar to the path Governor Granholm took with federal money for roads. It might be helpful if the Truth Squad rather then leave such thing as correct 'start' open of assumptions and were a bit more specific so reader could clearly understand what the Truth Squad is validating/certifying/supporting.

Jonah 212
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 10:31am

In the previous 8 years of the Snyder administration, the then Governor and the House and Senate (Republican controlled) did nothing to fix infrastructure and now they whine about Whitmer. And... Trump complained in Grand Rapids about not fixing potholes and yet he has never proposed an infrastructure plan that he touted in his run for the Presidency.

I give kudos to Gov. Whitmer for at least trying another way to fund several billion in road and bridge reconstruction with a bond issue. At least she is not sitting on her hands as Snyder and the Senate and House did for 8 years and the Senate and House are at the same "sit on the hands" plan again.

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 3:30pm

Gov. Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature raised both gas taxes and vehicle registration fees in 2015. See https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2015/07/01/legislature-w... for details of that bill. Our gas taxes went up by 5 cents / gallon in each of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Guess what the Michigan DOT decided was the best possible use of the extra money from 2015 through 2018? Paying off old road construction bonds issued under Governor's Engler and Granholm.

Snyder and the Republicans even wrote a special fee for electric and hybrid-electric vehicles into the law to replace some of the Transportation Fund dollars those drivers aren't funding through gasoline sales, and indexed it to future increases in Michigan's gasoline taxes. There was a guest article here on Bridge about that topic last week. https://www.bridgemi.com/guest-commentary/opinion-michigan-needs-fair-ap....

I agree that Snyder and the R's didn't accomplish enough with that tax & fees increase to do much more than slow the decline of our roads and bridges a bit, but it sure wasn't "sitting on their hands". Nor did what they did accomplish put the state deeper into debt the way Whitmer's bond issue will.

Al Simon
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 10:34am

Is taking on $3.5 billion more in dept while we still are paying on a $1 billion dept from a decade ago? This is something the people of Michigan should be allowed to vote on. Yes, she's doing something about the roads that mostly downstate areas will benefit from, it will also be used as a political talking point for her re-election. How about taking advantage of the economic boom our President has created to encourage more business opportunities in Michigan and increase the tax revenue to pay for the roads? Ultimately, I believe one of the biggest problems with new taxes is people are fed up with knowing that our bureaucrats can't be trusted with using the money wisely and what it was intended for, while creating more crippling regulations for road building that are nice things to have but are costly. And then there's the local roads...

middle of the mit
Sat, 02/08/2020 - 3:47am

I think this board could use a little hit from reality. And for a hit of reality, I offer you this;


[[[Grover Norquist, an icon among anti-tax conservatives, once famously said that he wanted to shrink government down to “the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

We’re far from that fantasy – a sentiment that consistently draws laughs and applause from Republican audiences far and wide – but Michigan clearly has become a state where the Norquist “starve the beast” strategy has succeeded rather spectacularly.

After years of a struggling auto industry, an anemic Michigan economy and constant partisan battles in the Capitol, the resulting budget shrinkage represents a “mission accomplished” for Norquist’s disciples.

But the problem with that thinking is that in 2000 Engler was hailed by Republicans as the best governor the state had seen in decades. He was especially praised for slashing spending. Today, that same Engler budget from two decades ago – if it had just kept pace with inflation – would provide several billion dollars more in revenue for various highly valued programs.

Many House and Senate Republicans in Lansing surely favor even more budget downsizing in 2021. Others want to boost their favorite programs without an increase in taxes or other revenues, such as Whitmer’s upcoming $3.5 billion bond sale to finance improvements on major roads.

But this “free lunch” approach simply amounts to playing to the crowd. The proposed general fund budget, the state’s basic checking account, not including restricted federal funds, is at $11 billion. It would take a spending cut of at least $1 billion in the general fund to make a real fiscal impact. But no Republican will put forward a dramatic list of cuts that reaches 10 figures.

As of last year, the state is now $10.4 billion below the maximum revenue allowed by the amendment. According to the State Budget Office, that gap will reach almost $12 billion by next year.

If Lansing had simply stayed at the Headlee limit, a budget of $10 billion to $12 billion more – an unimaginable sum in the political atmosphere of 2020 – would be up for debate in the House and Senate.]]]

Austerity in action over 30 years.

Live with it republicans.