Road deal made by politicians who won’t face the consequences

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the Michigan Constitution was amended to impose term limits on those elected to govern our state. A governor may now only serve two four-year terms.

Same for the secretary of state and attorney general. A state senator also may not serve more than two four-year terms. A state representative is term limited to three terms of two years each.

After that, they are barred for life from serving in those positions again. There are lots of good reasons not to like term limits. Placing a premium on inexperience is one. Providing an incentive for lawmakers to run for higher office from the day they are first elected is another.

Last week’s passage of bills to “fix” the roads provides a particularly powerful illustration of what’s wrong with this system. First of all: Term limits encourage legislators to kick cans down the road.

Case in point: Two thirds of the legislators (73 Republicans and 2 Democrats) who voted for the $1.2 billion-a-year road fix will have departed Lansing by the time the fuel tax and registration fee increases they approved last week actually begin generating substantial revenue for road repairs in 2018.

Governor Rick Snyder, who is expected to sign the bill this week, will also be term-limited out of office at the end of 2018, at the end of his second four-year term. Moreover, the enormous diversion of the $600 million from the state’s general fund that is supposed to pay for half the cost of road repairs won’t start until 2019, after Snyder and most of the legislators who approved the road fix will have left office. (The first slice is estimated at $356 million.)

In other words, the lawmakers who just voted for the road bill package won’t have to face the voters who will be angered by the cuts that the state will make to Medicaid benefits, schools and colleges and universities. That’s the great thing about can kicking: You don’t have to face up to the consequences of what you did while you’re in office.

Someone else will, someday, when the cost of dealing with those consequences will be much worse than they would be now.

Maybe the financial planning embedded in the bill will work out the way the mostly-Republican legislative majority figures. They’ve produced economic forecasts that predict enormous growth in state revenues they think will be generated – without tax increases – by a rapidly growing state economy.

Except for one thing: Any plan that risks dismembering the state’s main source of funding on growth projections 10 years out is silly. Michigan has, indeed, been experiencing good growth in recent years, mostly because the auto industry is thriving.

But that industry is captive to the business cycle, and anybody who believes that today’s good times are certain to run into 2019 may have been testing the not-yet-legal recreational use of marijuana.

You can’t count on good times continuing, in other words. There’s another problem with the institutional can-kicking embedded in the road bill: What responsible politician is going to want to run for governor or the legislature when big general fund cuts start to bite?

Who wants to preside over a state in the process of dismembering much of the social structure – good schools, essential services – that has sustained a good quality of life in Michigan?

Sure, there are a few who are proud advocates for throttling the “evil monster” of government, “drowning it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist put it. But that is a winning ideology only as long as times are flush – and voters fail to notice that poor people’s health is deteriorating and Michigan kids are not learning as much as they used to.

The cry to fix the roads peaked two years ago – tellingly, in the middle of a hard winter – when Gov. Snyder pointed out the roads were a disaster and urged an extra $1.2 billion to fix them.

Virtually everybody who drives much has since discovered the cost of flat tires, alignments and wheel rims bent by monster potholes. Media folks (including me, to be sure) made grave pronouncements about how essential it was to fix the damn roads.

What few wanted to face at the time was figuring out how the road repair bill was going to be paid. Yes, $1.2 billion is a lot of money, and nobody figured even legislative geniuses could find that much in a $9 billion general fund without inflicting lots of pain.

Indeed, there is no way to do that. But that’s not my problem say lots of lawmakers, who – once again – have successfully managed to kick the can down the road.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 11/10/2015 - 9:56am
Let's hope that those in Lansing read and hear these words. I would say this is one of the more absurd creations of the anti-tax extremists in Lansing, but there have been so many poor decisions there. But what makes this one stand out is that a majority of the public was willing to pay more taxes to cover the cost. Conservative ideology says that use taxes are better than sales or income taxes, but the current crop of conservatives seems to believe that the gov't should never increase revenue - the "starve the beast" approach advocated by Reagan. This legislature seems to want to drive our state to financial ruin and then will blame it on Democrats. BTW - I whole heartedly agree with your views on the absurdity of term limits.
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 10:03am
Mr. Powers, you are 100% correct in your analysis of the recently passed "roads legislation", scheduled to be signed by the Governor today. Our elected officials must be held accountable for their votes, during their tenure in office. Unfortunately, many will be term limited from their current positions, when this bill is completely implemented. To encumber $600 million annually, from the State's General Fund, based on suspect economic projections, just is not right! If General Fund programs, currently funded, experience cuts in the future, in order fund roads, those legislators making the cuts, will say, "We were not in office, when the roads legislation was passed, so you can't blame us". Really!!! Dr. Mike Shibler, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools.
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 8:58pm
Dr., If I understand your logic, "Our elected officials must be held accountable for their votes, during their tenure in office. ", you are saying that term limits prevent politician who have made a 'bad' vote from being vote out of office. Then I am I right in reading that you mean to eliminted term limits and keep 'bad' voting politicians in office until they are voted out? Are you concerned that they will continue to vote 'badly'? With that logic I am ever more sure we need term limits, limting their time in office and we limit the number of 'bad' votes they can make.
Fri, 11/13/2015 - 9:45am
Duane: Your concern relies on the logical fallacy that all lawmakers will vote badly (against the public interest) all the time. Considering that at least some lawmakers will vote for the public interest at least some of the time (to suggest otherwise is laughably extremist), Dr. Shibler's logic is sound. Lawmakers who primarily vote against the public interest could be voted out, while lawmakers who vote for the public interest could be retained without being term-limited out. Constant and rapid turnover isn't good for any business or government. Jonathan B., Rockford class of '97.
Fri, 11/13/2015 - 5:00pm
Jonathan, When was the last time you read about a Legislator that voted properly? All I read about legislators is how badly they vote or act or are controlled by 'dark money'. And it all seems to be based on term limits and how it prevents quality candidates to become elected and retained. If all we hear about is the failures then why shouldn't we be designing the system to minimize the failures? I have to admit I don't read every article on Bridge or every comment, but to the best of my recollection I do read regularly about how our system has been corrupted by 'dark money', so we must have no effective/quality legislators, and every vote seems to be a bad [at least from the article writers perspective] vote. I have yet to read an article or commentor that suggest there is any way to tell what a quality candidate would look like [no suggestion of any criteria to use in an evaluation, except maybe not being a Republican]. With the preponderance of what is written being about the failure of the system and the people in the system, then is it best to design a system that ensures the most rapid turnover in Legislators with the hope that randomness will yield a 'good' legislator eventually. As regards what is in the 'public interest' I did not read how the good Dr. determines that. It seems he is the arbitor of 'public interest' and either is not willing to share how he makes his judgements or he does so simply based on personal bias. As a side note; I have yet to hear the like of the good Dr. or Mr. Power ever acknowledge there were any disappointments before 'dark money' or term limits. From a personal perspective, I believe that there is a 'Lansing' culture and the longer someone works in that culture the more they become proponents of it. That culture is spend other people's money without accountability. The more turnover in those in those who are working in that cutlure the better chance we have of weakening it and possibly even changing it. I would like there to be a desire to get value of the spending. A simple test for you to consider; why not ask people the readers how they select candidates for their votes and why. How high on that list do you think providing a consequence for a single vote will be on the list? People don't vote to punish they vote to support, I can only surmise that Mr. Power and the good Dr. only care about punishment otherwise they would be interested in creating a set of candidate criteria for voters to use when voting in an effort to get better legislators. I apologize for the length, but I felt you comments deserved a thoughtful [within my abilities] response.
Sylvia Whitmer
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 10:13am
Agreed enthusiastically that term limits are absurd, and, as the road votes show, economically destructive to Michigan. SW
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 10:26am
Phil, So term limited politicians kick cans down roads (meaning refuse to address obvious and inevitable problems and unsustainable situations)? By this I assume you imply unlimited term professional politicians are responsible stewards? That's a relief! Since seeing your articles about all the under funded public pensions in Michigan (and across the country), along with Social Security, SS Disability, Medicaid, Medicare, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA, (Gods know what other national programs), city of Detroit and Flint,(surely I've missed many here), I'm sure glad that none of the professional politicians responsible for oversight of these monuments of sustainability were or are subject to Term limits.
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 8:48pm
We already have term limits for professional politicians. They are called elections. The current term limit situation, which I supported in my ignorant youth, is untenable. In any other field, experience is important and/or required. Would you rather have a first year med student perform your brain surgery, or someone with experience? The current mandated term limits need to either a.) be extended, or b.) be eliminated. I prefer option b. It will go a long way toward fixing the broken politics of Lansing.
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 9:34am
To reiterate my point... you can't blame term limited pols for unaddressed problems when unlimited term pols are up to their necks in them and show just as little compulsion (probably even less) to solve them as limited term pols. Where's your evidence to the contrary? It doesn't exist.
Thu, 11/12/2015 - 8:23am
Better yet, is term limited part time Legislators. When in Missouri the part-time forced them to focus on a small number of issues because of a limit on how Bills to vote on and by when the voting had to be done. At least in that way things were drawn out, it was slow for the pundits only having them Columbia for a few months a year.
Tom House
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 10:38am
Sadly, this plan to fix the roads without the common sense or the legislative courage to fund it without tapping the general fund revenue used to fund other essential programs and services is not a surprise coming from our elected representatives. Few of the actions set in motion with recent legislation I are rooted in common sense. The third grade reading bill which calls for mandatory retention, when almost all of the research tells us that retention has more often the very negative result of creating more school dropouts, is just one example. Allowing the carrying of concealed weapons in schools is another example. Rather than fix the controversy about the open carry mess, our legislators solved the problem by saying it will go away if we allow the guns to remain hidden. I can say definitely that in my forty years in education it would never have me feel that my colleagues and staff members and students were safer if there were guns in the school that I couldn't see or that I didn't know we're there. I do know that nobody is ever killed or harmed by guns that are not there. Common sense is uncommonly scarce in Lansing.
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 11:14am
Common sense isn't!!!
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 10:51am
"In other words, the lawmakers who just voted for the road bill package won’t have to face the voters who will be angered by the cuts that the state will make to Medicaid benefits, schools and colleges and universities. That’s the great thing about can kicking: You don’t have to face up to the consequences of what you did while you’re in office."Interesting argument, Mr. Power, one that I continually hear from Michigan Democrats on why they are opposed to accepting any responsibility whatsoever and setting priorities when it comes to spending money. That said, care to address the HFA report projecting far greater increases in revenue than the paltry $600-million going to roads in the Snyder-Meekhof road funding solution"?. Or how about the SFA projections of $920-million for FY 2015-2016 and $1.6-billion for FY 2016-17? Eagerly anticipating your response.
Barry Visel
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 10:59am
Each year we give away 30x the 1.2billion road funding cost through tax credits, tax deductions and tax incentives, and then we say we don't have the money for this or that. Stop picking winners and losers and collect the taxes that are on the books and we'll be just fine. Heck, we could even lower the sales tax and income tax rates and still have more money.
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 9:42am
So you would be happy getting rid of deductions for local taxes paid, home interest expenses, charitable deductions, and Property tax credits, EITC etc etc? A big thumbs up.
Thu, 11/12/2015 - 8:52am
Where do I sign up. The deductions of all kinds distort the the fiscal choices for each person. Similarly EITC, etc. distort how issues are addressed or ignored. I would include minimum wage into the mix. They are all an effort to distort the financial decision of voters. I don't think a person should be deciding on a 30 year mortgage because of a tax law, a person will be charitable based on a tax deduction?
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 11:57am
Phil, great and insightful comments as usual. What a sorry mess our amateur politicians have once again foisted upon us. We will pay a very hefty price at some point in time. Too bad they don't require some basic math skills for people who want to get elected to public office. We should all save a copy of the names of current legislators so we know who to complain to 10 years from now.
William C. Plumpe
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 12:30pm
As I have said before and even suggested to some legislators if I had a choice and needed an extra $200 million or so in new revenue every year I'd put an additional 10 cent tax on every 12 ounce serving of beer sold in Michigan every year. There are over 2 billion 12 ounce servings of beer sold in Michigan annually. And an extra 60 cents per six pack for road repair isn't a real big deal even for an avid yet occasional beer drinker like me. The beer tax in Michigan has not increased for over 30 years. I think if you want road repairs you should be willing to pay for them. The beer tax seems to be a relatively painless way to raise an additional $200 million and take less out of the general fund. Let's trade better roads for slightly more expensive beers. Sounds like a good idea to me.
Barry Visel
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 2:26pm
Beer tax should be no more than 6% just like the sales tax on other goods...ditto for wine and spirits. Time to do away with the liquor control commission and the monopoly distributors.
Roger Martin
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 1:46pm
Phil's column is spot on. One point that is missing is worth noting: This roads "plan" does, in fact, rely on future Legislatures and the next Governor to eventually send $600 million a year from the state's General Fund to roads. In fact, however, this Legislature can't do that because it's simply not legal. No sitting Legislature can require a future Legislature to spend a General Fund dime on, or cut a dime from, anything not mandated in the constitution. Yes, this plan includes bills that eventually spend $600 million a year from the GF on roads. But by a simple majority vote, the 99th, 100th, 101st ... any and ALL future ... Legislatures can simply say, "um, no." So while $600 million of this plan is real (the funds generated by the gas and diesel tax and registration fee increases), the other $600 million that is supposed to flow from future General Funds is little more than a wish. Supporters of the "plan" will counter: "But the $600 million from the GF is now in statute (law). So future Legislatures would have to change or ignore the law." And to that, I would counter: This state has a bunch of statutes (laws) that require the Legislature to send "statutory revenue sharing" dollars to local governments every year. And over the past 15 years or so, multiple legislatures and governors have simply chosen to ignore those statutes (laws). In fact, over that time they have cut more than $5 billion (yes with a "b") in "statutory revenue sharing" from cities, counties and townships. They used the funds to patch holes in the state budget. Bottom line: only time will tell if the $600 million in this "plan" that is supposed to go to roads from future GFs ever goes to roads.
Clark Harder
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 5:54pm
Roger: You are spot on.
John Q. Public
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 7:28pm
Just out of curiosity, how many of these guys were elected partially on the strength of the advocacy communications of Martin Waymire? No names, just a number.
Roger Martin
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 7:11am
John Q.: The answer is zero, none. We don't run the campaigns of political candidates from any party ever. Never have, never will. And, if you are going to try to criticize my firm, why don't you have the courage to do it under your name. It's easy to be a coward and hide in the shadows, isn't it?
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 2:06pm
Holy hyperbole! Dedicating 3 percent of future state revenues to roads is "dismembering the state's main source of funding?" It's lines like this that make hard to take Phil Power seriously.
John S.
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 3:14pm
Myopia, or not looking beyond the next election, is a characteristic shared by most legislators, whether term limited or not. For term limited legislators, there's an incentive to engage in shirking (not performing their duties, such as raising taxes to get an immediate start on fixing the roads--a.k.a. kicking the can down the road). There's no penalty for leaving a mess behind for legislators who follow them to clean up. This case--giving the can a swift, strong kick so that it goes far down the road-- appears to involve both myopia and shirking.
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 4:12pm
I think it's time to petition the Federal Government to federalize the Michigan National Guard and put them in charge of the State Government. All the adults have left the capitol, leaving behind soggy tea bags.
John Q. Public
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 7:25pm
Martial Law--yeah, that's the ticket. But hey, the trains will run on time, eh, foxy?
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 7:37pm
Don't know if the trains will run on time. But the trains will run. And the roads will be fixed with real money, not some convoluted, sometime in the future, if the stars align and the people pick the right shell that is hiding the pea.
John Q. Public
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 7:23pm
OK, how many of you complainers here voted for any candidate other than a Republican or Democrat in the last three legislative elections? The problem isn't campaign finance, and it isn't term limits, and it isn't gerrymandering. It's blind party allegiance in a two-party system that is effectively one. Ray Franz blubbered about compromising his principles and hoping his vote was "worth it" to those who wanted the bill passed. It was an unvarnished admission that party came before principle, and I didn't see a single political columnist call him on it.
Fri, 11/13/2015 - 8:17am
Phil, Our Michigan Media failed to scream the dangers of these road bills BEFORE they were rammed down out throats. I saw this coming before we so proudly cut our collective throats by voting down last spring's rad funding package. I posted on Facebook, wrote letters to the editor and emailed my friends and our unresponsive legislators. But the Newspapers, TV News and on line media were pretty much silent. Thanks for your insight prior to the May elections.
Sun, 11/15/2015 - 8:14am
Oh wow. I am apparently in the minority who applaud term limits...which should be extended to all in DC. We are faced with an insoluble problem (so far): How do we cleanse politics of the imperative that candidates need huge sums of money to be elected? (Oh, sorry, that IS politics). Until all undemocratic (correct meaning) tendencies can be stifled, term limits are an appropriate option to limit the tenure of bought-and-paid for special interest shills. And yet these bozos did kick the can down the road...while increasing the "birthday tax" (Please! I am so tired of the uber creative manipulation of our language by left-wing artisans.) The most telling thing in this whole goat rodeo is that this year Lansing spent as much on roads as they said they needed to--without any of this new plunder and deceit. And all to put to rest a leaky proposition that we needed new revenue for roads. At least our Constitution wasn't violated.
Sun, 11/15/2015 - 10:09am
If one deals solely with outcomes, it can be argued that the current situation is far from good. The Legislature was unable to pass a road-fix bill with elements of either timeliness or logic, but had no problem with a bill that allows for more guns on college campuses. Whether or not term-limits is the problem can be debated, but what cannot be debated is that the majority of the current collection in Lansing is not up to the job.
Sun, 11/15/2015 - 10:20am
To all: Did you vote in the last statewide election? Are you among the 60% of eligible voters who did not vote? Crickets? Enough said. Also, this is what you get when the public abandoned their responsibility to take part of the process. Case in point? The elimination of straight party voting on the canard of providing "more choice" with the lie that $1M is needed to "study" the issue.
Charles Richards
Sun, 11/15/2015 - 3:49pm
Mr. Power misstates the situation when he says, "Yes, $1.2 billion is a lot of money, and nobody figured even legislative geniuses could find that much in a $9 billion general fund without inflicting lots of pain." The Detroit News recently noted that no money will be taken from the General Fund in the next two fiscal years. There will be $150 million taken from the General Fund in Fiscal Year 2019, $325 million in Fiscal Year 2020, and $600 million in Fiscal Year 2021. While there are no guarantees, with reasonable economic growth, the General Fund will have grown enough to make all those transfers easily affordable. In no case will it be necessary, as Mr. Power asserts, to find $1.2 billion in a $9 billion General Fund.