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

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.”

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