The Michigan Legislature has set aside nine days to pass new laws before the end of the calendar year. Bridge has already outlined some of the issues likely to come up in this so-called lame-duck session or early in the next legislative session that begins in January. Today, we offer deeper looks at three measures that may be addressed before the New Year, starting with possible changes to transportation funding. The other issues explored today are Electoral College voting and A-F school grades.
Few can argue that Michigan’s roads stink. They’re pocked with potholes, underfunded by the state and costly for motorists.
Michigan residents are well aware of the problem: 70 percent of the participants in community conversations held by the Center for Michigan in 2013 and 2014 said the state’s transportation infrastructure was an urgent priority. And more than half – 52 percent of conversation participants and 58 percent of those polled by the Center – said they’d be willing to pay more in taxes to fix the roads.
But despite the obvious shape of the roads, and the apparent willingness to fund the repairs, state leaders have had a rough time finding a solution that attacks the problem – Gov. Rick Snyder wants $1 billion in new annual money for roads – with a funding increase palatable to legislators leery of raising taxes.
"I've got to believe it's time," said Tom Casperson, a Republican state senator from Escanaba, who has advocated for additional road funding.
How bad is it? Let us count the ways:
- By some measures, Michigan has some of the worst roads in the country
- It also spends the least on road funding per capita of any state
- And though the state isn’t spending as much money on roads, motorists are: It’s estimated motorists spend $7.7 billion on extra road repairs, extra time and fuel and accidents because of road conditions. Translation: That’s $357 for every motorist for damaged tires and rims and other repairs caused by the sad state of Michigan roads.
All of the solutions considered so far may not even get to half the problem. Former state Rep. Rick Olson has said he believes the $1.2 billion that Snyder originally sought in 2012 is $1 billion short of the amount of new money needed to improve the roads. The Snyder proposal would just repair the existing network, Olson said.
The state’s gas tax – now at 19 cents a gallon – has remained unchanged since 1997, when it rose 4 cents. And the state is one of just seven states that applies the state sales tax to fuel sales. In Michigan, none of the sales tax revenue, which is over 19 cents a gallon when gas exceeds roughly $3.45 a gallon, is dedicated for road funding.
The legislature did agree in March to a one-time infusion of $285 million in new money for road maintenance, mainly to help county road commissions deal with the huge expense of clearing the snow generated by last winter’s historic snowfalls in much of the state.
But more ambitious plans to repair Michigan’s roads and bridges collapsed in June in advance of the fall elections.
Legislators could not agree on any of the proposals. House Speaker Jase Bolger pitched the idea of replacing the 19 cents per gallon tax (and 15 cents on diesel) with a 6 percent tax on the wholesale cost of either, in addition to other changes. But that plan would not have raised additional money - and with gas prices lower today, it would actually have produced less money.
Bolger’s counterpart in the senate, Majority Leader Randy Richardville, (R., Monroe) had a different proposal, calling for an increase in the gas tax that could, over time, raise the current tax – now 19 cents – an additional 7 cents a gallon and possibly as much as 24 more cents a gallon. It too failed.
Now, with the elections over, some believe the lame-duck legislature may be more willing to pass a road-funding deal. Snyder, Richardville and others have said it is a priority. And the highly influential Michigan Chamber of Commerce has long supported a massive infusion of cash and its executive director, Rich Studley, recently said the chamber may take the issue to the ballot if Lansing’s leaders don’t solve the problem.
But political trouble could still loom for road fixes if a deal isn't struck before January, when a handful of more conservative Republicans will take their seats in the legislature, welcomed by some sitting legislators who have already signed a “no-new-taxes” pledge. Are moderate Republicans willing to potentially anger voters during the lame duck session before the new legislature takes over?
What we know
Because of the tricky political landscape that will get trickier come January, proponents of a road funding deal are looking at the lame-duck session as the best time to patch a long-unfilled hole. Casperson said he believes a first start may be taking a look at Bolger's more austere attempt. But he hopes the legislature's leaders go for the big fix: a long-term solution that paves the way for smoother roads. It may mean removing the sales tax off gas, replacing it with a roads-dedicated tax ‒ and then tacking 1 percent onto the sales tax to make up for the loss of revenue from fuel sales, as others have proposed. That would be a big change, and a controversial one.
"I'm hoping we take a shot at putting something into this and fix it," he said.
That may be a tall order, and Casperson knows it. "I think we've got a better shot now than in January," he said.