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Whitmer to Detroit chamber: ‘There is not enough pot to fill the potholes.’

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stood before Detroit business leaders on Thursday clicking through slides that showed state declines in infrastructure repairs, education and water quality.

Huge charts from her 2020 budget proposal were projected on three walls as she paced on a stage at the MGM Grand ballroom in Detroit.

“We rank at bottom for education revenue growth … the bottom 20 for post-secondary (education) attainment … and drinking water is not only a problem in Flint,” she said.  

“We are not positioned to win the race much less be competitive.”

She called on Detroit’s business community to help persuade Republicans who control the state legislature to support her $60 billion budget proposal built on a historic 45-cent per gallon increase to the gas tax, one the governor said would cost an average motorist $23 a month and generate an additional $2.5 billion a year for the state.

“I got elected to solve problems. I need everyone who sees the wisdom here to be a part of this,” she said. “We have a Legislature that needs some support so they can make that one historic vote.”

Whitmer’s address to business leaders at the MGM Grand Detroit Hotel & Casino is part of a statewide tour to pitch the governor’s budget.

Whitmer faces steep odds. Lee Chatfield, Republican Speaker of the House, last week called the gas tax a “non-starter,” and is one among many in the GOP, which controls the state House and Senate, who say there are other revenue streams to tap before resorting to a tax increase.

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which sponsored Thursday’s event, said his organization generally supports the gas tax increase to fix the roads.

“We think it’s going to take $2.5 billion dollars a year,” he said. “If someone else can show us even half of that out of other elements of the state budget without having significant ramifications to real people, you’re smoking something that’s not legal.”

Other than political partisanship, the major hurdle Whitmer’s proposed budget faces is with the public, Baruah said. It could depend on whether state residents conclude that paying higher gas taxes will be cheaper than the car repairs caused by Michigan’s bad roads, he said.

“(The gas tax) is going to cost the average driver between two to three hundred dollars a year, that’s real money and people are going to balk at paying that. The question is: Are they paying more now when they hit a pothole and they have to fix their alignment and buy a new rim?

“I think the average right now is $600 that Michigan residents are paying now above what other states are paying to keep our cars maintained because of the bad condition of our roads.”

The governor told the crowd her budget intentionally tied big problems such as roads, education funding, the skills gap and improving drinking water to the gas tax.

“The gas tax is the linchpin to do all the things in the budget,” she said.

That means the legislature is set up to make one big vote that can fix several problems, she said.

Whitmer drew chuckles from the suited crowd when she was asked a question about the state’s marijuana tax revenues.

“There is not enough pot to fill the potholes,” she joked.

She drew applause when she noted her budget would increase funding for all schools, including a funding increase to the Detroit Public Schools Community District of $424 per student.

Whitmer’s budget also seeks to close the skills gap. Forty-four percent of Michigan residents have post-secondary degrees or certification, ranking Michigan in the bottom 20 states.

Lisa Howze, the former chief government affairs officer for City of Detroit, and current vice president for Detroit campuses at Davenport University, said she was glad to hear the governor talk about raising post-secondary skills attainment.

“The thing that resonated with me most is the idea of closing the skills gap,” Howze said. “In the state of Michigan I think her goals for 60 percent post-secondary educational attainment for all adults in the state by 2030 is good.”

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