Getting Lansing to consider our long-term infrastructure needs

When I was growing up, a pretty standard exchange at the family dinner table was, “Be sure to eat your vegetables, dear.”

“Yeah, OK,” I’d say.  And mostly I’d eat them, reluctantly, after finishing the better stuff.

But as l grew older, like many of us, I gradually came around to the idea that eating well -- vegetables and all – was, over the long run, an important part of a healthy way of living. The key phrase is “over the long run,” a thought that doesn’t seem to apply to the way lots of things work these days, especially in our political system.

Sadly, in Lansing and Washington these days, the “long run” typically means something like “over the next couple weeks,” which provides an insight into the attention deficit disorder displayed by far too many politicians and the 24-hour news cycle foisted on the political system by television and social media.

Progress, especially on tough problems, is never easy or quick. Never has been. So when the default expectation is that large matters can be resolved in a matter of weeks, there’s a contradiction between persistent reality and unrealistic expectation.

So when our leaders actually offer long-run thinking, the normal public response is a mixture of boredom (“eat your vegetables, dear”) and incredulity (“this is surely not possible”).

My fear is that this is likely to happen to two recent reports that point to an enormous problem for the future of our state.

As President Donald Trump keeps tweeting, “Sad!”

The first is the report of the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, a bipartisan group of experts convened last year by Gov. Rick Snyder to take a look at all aspects of our underpinnings.

During his State of the State speech last week, the governor pitched the sensible approach taken by the commission as being the first state policy initiative to take into consideration all infrastructure asset types: water, transport, energy and communications.

As if to underscore his point, Business Leaders for Michigan released a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave Michigan a “D” grade on the state of our entire infrastructure.

“We have a critical problem,” said Doug Rothwell, BLM president and CEO.  “The report and the Governor’s Commission document these needs in detail and identify best practices others have used to address similar challenges.”

The BLM study aligns closely with the governor’s  commission in estimating our infrastructure needs at approximately $4 billion per year and setting out goals for a sane policy that involves growing the economy, improving health and safety and achieving sustainability.

The infrastructure report also sets out a series of perfectly sensible principles to put needs into action: Prioritize specific investments, with transportation (read: roads) and water (read: Flint) getting the highest priority; use public-private partnerships wherever possible; require warranties on work. Construction revenue should come mostly from the users of the infrastructure.

The commission also discussed a renewable bond program or a regional user assessment system to fund needs that can’t be met through user-based funding. A bonding program makes plenty of sense at a time when interest rates are still at near-historic lows and national attention is finally starting to be paid to the crying need to tackle our deteriorating infrastructure.  

Overall, the businesslike policy emphasis for both BLM and the Infrastructure Commission makes perfect sense.  As Rothwell put it, “For too long, we’ve been putting out fires. We need to lay out a comprehensive plan for fixing, maintaining and expanding our infrastructure so it supports our needs now and in the future.”

After all, a deteriorating highway bridge will kill Republicans, Democrats and rich and poor alike if it finally collapses.

So what are the odds of the political system in Michigan doing something serious about all this?  Poised, I fear, uneasily between “slim” and “none.”

A case in point: State Sen. Jack Brandenburg (R-Harrison Township) recently received a burst of publicity when he proposed completely repealing the state’s personal income tax within five years (a House plan would eliminate the tax over 40 years). At 4.25 percent, the income tax brought in more than $9.3 billion in 2016, and is the largest source of state revenue in the budget. Brandenburg says he doesn’t have a plan on how to replace the lost revenue or what state spending would be slashed to meet the budget hole, but he thinks a “work group” could be formed to consider the question.

What a new idea!

Urging state legislators to “eat their vegetables” sounds to me like a lost cause.  But the persistent unwillingness of our political leaders to think seriously about long-run solutions to problems such as our aging and deteriorating infrastructure, pinpoints the danger a sclerotic and disengaged political system poses for all our citizens.

Experienced business people know that effective management for their companies requires tough-minded, long-term thinking, exactly the sort mothers have when they urge kids to eat healthy.

But will the voters respond with passion and enthusiasm to a call to eat more vegetables – before disaster strikes?

Somehow, I doubt it.

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Tue, 01/31/2017 - 9:58am

Good overall analysis Phil, but the bottom line is, how much more do taxpayers have to fork over to pay for all of this? As you are probably aware, much of the state budget goes for federally mandated spending with little discretionary spending left over. This new gas tax is supposed to address the road issue, so what kinds of other taxes are needed for the other issues that you mention? Money is always the problem. But how much more do you want to take from the taxpayers? Yes, we do need to invest in the infrastructure, but at what point is the taxpayer willing to work anymore when he's taxed for more and has less and less to spend to buy stuff? Its a catch 22 isn't it Phil? Like I heard about a saying from the former Soviet Union, the government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work.

Bill Lantzy
Tue, 01/31/2017 - 9:59am

Unless I am missing something, $4 billion per year is not just going to materialize. Simple math tells me that we all would need to pay $400 more per year in taxes to insure that we can invest in or fix what we need to. Maybe its a bit more because there is some % of our population that is children and not yet paying taxes. If we do not step up and pay, it just means that we are passing this burden on to our progeny and by that time, who knows how much the invoice will be. Cut the fantasy talk about no taxes...where else is the money going to come from?

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 6:40pm

Define "We"?

John Saari
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 8:22am

Do not use taxes when you can use fees, permits, licenses, tolls, etc.

Tue, 01/31/2017 - 2:24pm

Dear Phil,
I find your analyses, your analogies and your conclusions to be sound and rational. Such rationality is truly a "breath of fresh air" in these days of polemics and ideological extremism. Of course, from one perspective one might characterize your comments as "just common sense". But this puts me in mind of what Will Rogers said about common sense, i.e. "Nothing is so uncommon"!
Keep smilin

Kevin Grand
Tue, 01/31/2017 - 9:32pm

I floated this idea on another thread, but it bears repeating again here.

If Lansing wants to find all of the money that it needs for what it is actually responsible for, all it has to do it make state legislators cite the specific portion of the Michigan Constitution where the authority exists for an appropriation.

No citation. No money.

When they took office, they all swore an oath to defend and uphold the Michigan Constitution.

Why not hold them to that oath for a change?

Tue, 01/31/2017 - 10:34pm

Mr. Power and BLM seem to want unlimited funding to keep rebuilding bridges and roads without fixing what makes the roads and bridges need replacement.

It seems that technology has changed everything in our lives, fixing problems that people didn’t think could be solved. But Mr. Power and BLM say nothing about fixing the problems with our roads and bridges, they never mention using new technology to fix the problems, they simply want more and more of other people’s money to rebuild roads and bridges with the same old problems.

Our infrastructure needs to be about the future and stop building them for the past.

Mr. Power talks about how businesses are good at planning for the long-term, what he fails to understand that their planning includes solving the old problems so they don’t keep costing them money and they build for the future. When businesses spend money they start by determining what value they need before they even talk about money. Mr. Power only talks about spending money not what we will get for that money.

I would encourage Mr. Power and BLM to stop looking in the review mirror when talking about the future [infrastructure], they need to look to other technologies and ask them how they are solving problems by looking toward the future.

Wed, 02/01/2017 - 7:47am

What I find entertaining is that Business Leaders of Michigan has argued in recent years for more money for roads, more money for higher ed, and now more money for general infrastructure. But never have they suggested any businesses be taxed to pay for it. It's always individual taxes they want raised. I'll start listening to them when they propose financing more spending with business tax increases.

Sun, 02/05/2017 - 2:59pm

When Snyder did his business tax cut it cost the state budget $2 billion. How much did we need then to fix our infrastructure? About $2 billion. Then he raised taxes on us little people to cover the business tax cut (that was supposed to create jobs, but didn't).
Citizens don't matter to this governor and party - it's the businesses and wealthy that they listen to and legislate for. We don't matter. Then they create myths, lies to justify cutting taxes for, you guessed it, the businesses and wealthy so more so they pay very little now.
The GOP legislature cut revenue sharing (forcing local taxes up), cut higher education but raised prison spending. Time to vote the clown circus out (here and in DC).

Michael Kiella
Fri, 02/03/2017 - 2:27pm

Has the time come for Michigan to consider use taxes in the form of a toll road system (pay for what you use, in the manner you use it, and the frequency with which you use it). If yes, then as Duane suggests above, should we create a common sense mandate to guard and protect the funds generated under that system...keeping them from being raided to pay for other budget shortfalls.

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 6:41pm

GPS all registered vehicles at owner expense and let government track our driving.

Sat, 02/04/2017 - 11:11am

But doesn't the gas tax do the same thing? The more you drive the gas you burn the more tax you pay.

Sat, 02/04/2017 - 11:13am

The big problem is that we divert gas tax money to schools by applying sales tax to gas unlike most states.

Sun, 02/05/2017 - 3:44pm

Have you considered that the problem could be that more effort/talk is put into getting more of other people's money than in achieving better results?

Have you ever wonder how commercial organization continue improving their products and service while still having to be cost competitive [lowering cost for improved results]?

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 1:13pm

You know me well enough that I'm the last person to believe that more money is answer to every problem or at least after you! Too many personal experiences have brought me to the conclusion that we have more government than we have effective people to run it. And too few proven successful people have any interest in putting up with it.. We're doomed.

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 9:57pm

You're absolutely right about the sales tax on gas issue, Matt. Fixing that was a key piece of Prop 1 two years ago, but unfortunately the bill was so complicated that it went down in flames.

John Saari
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 8:18am

Gas tax, vehicular reg, vehicular sales tax, toll booths, etc must pay for all maintence. Governments should never borrow money, without a vote of the people. New roads must be paid for by others, we have enough roads.

John S.
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 1:05pm

The problem, as Mr. Power notes, is government failure. Politicians tend to be myopic, focusing upon getting reelected (or if term limited, finding their next job). They also tend to be parochial, focused mostly on the immediate needs of their district. They also posture, especially the increasing number who like to impress others with their grasp of political ideology. Political ideology may be similar to "ear worms" or memes that infect the brain and are difficult to remove. Public policy that is driven by evidence and by pragmatic democratic politics (bargaining and compromise) isn't on the horizon right now. It's the responsibility of politicians to educate voters on the importance of infrastructure to the state's economy and quality of life and the rationale that underlies taxes and other means (public-private partnerships) to support it. There are public "goods."