Infrastructure & Environment

Michigan Legislature Breaks without Resolving Voters No. 1 Issue: Roads

by | June 13, 2014

By Paul Egan and Kathleen Gray

Michigan lawmakers adjourned Thursday without the big fix for roads that Gov. Rick Snyder has advocated for more than two years and motorists are clamoring for as they traverse the state's pothole-scarred roads.

The Senate tried one final time to pass a revenue-neutral tax Thursday evening, which they said would have set the table for more work on the issue over the summer and fall, but fell three votes short.

Republicans tried to put the best face on the impasse, saying it was "Not that big a deal," according to Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe.

He noted the state's omnibus budget passed Thursday includes $285 million more for roads and that a work group will convene this summer to try and come up with a longer-term solution.

"We've got enough money in pipeline to keep planners and road builders busy for the time being," he said. "And it really doesn't make a difference if we got it done today or we get it done in August or September."

Gov. Rick Snyder, who worked with the Legislature to try and come up with a solution, said he will remain "relentless in my pursuit of a long-term solution.

"Unfortunately, this is an issue that I would admit there's too much politics going on," he added. "It's a challenge, it's an election year and you're finding participants in this process be more political and that's unfortunate."

But Democrats were furious, saying they put up the votes Wednesday for a long-term solution and Republicans fell short.

"We struck a deal and worked for support of the deal. We lived up to our end to the bargain, but Republican infighting destroyed it," said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing. "I sincerely want to solve this problem and for Republicans to shirk their duties is infuriating."

Work on a road-funding plan isn't dead, but Thursday's failure means there will be no new money during the summer and fall construction seasons to fix crater-marked roads and bridges ravaged by a particularly tough winter and spring thaw. Although the Legislature did pass $215 million for roads in a supplemental bill this spring. Experts said Michigan roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, and that the more time that goes by, the more expensive the fix will be.

Reaction was swift and negative.

"These folks are elected to make tough decisions and again, they've put it off," said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association.

"They're making a big mistake recessing for the summer without acting on a larger, more comprehensive package," said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a group that normally loathes tax hikes but supported a gas tax increase of 25 cents per gallon over four years.

-- Brian Dickerson: How GOP can get away with not giving us roads we all want

-- Stephen Henderson: Hey, Legislature: Get a road deal done or get out

A recent Detroit Free Press/WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) poll showed that fixing the roads is the No. 1 issue for Michigan voters, and they are willing to pay higher taxes to get the job done, though there's a lack of agreement on what form those taxes should take.

The inaction Thursday followed several failed votes Wednesday on proposed gas tax hikes ranging from major -- close to 25 cents per gallon over five years -- to minor -- almost revenue neutral. The failed votes came despite a deal under which eight of 12 Senate Democrats voted in favor of the tax hikes in return for Republican support of an enhanced Homestead Property Tax Credit for low- and middle-income families, which also died with the gas tax hike.

The Senate also failed to pass a resolution that would have let voters decide in November whether they wanted to raise the 6% general sales tax by 1 percentage point, with the more than $1 billion in extra revenue raised going to fix the roads.

Norm Howe of Trenton, a partner in a medical consulting firm who has a doctorate in chemistry, was particularly annoyed that the Legislature took no action to better regulate and tax heavy trucks, citing studies showing that truck traffic puts more stress on roadways than cars do.

"If we need more money for road repair, it should come from trucks, not cars," Howe said.

In May, the House passed bills to double and in some cases, quintuple, permit fees for overweight trucks after the Free Press reported that Michigan's $50 fees for trucks -- that in some cases weigh more than 1 million pounds -- are far below what other states charge.

But the Senate voted down that bill during a late-night session Wednesday, and Richardville said he instead wants to appoint a task force to study the heavy-trucks issue over the summer.

Another bill passed by the House that would double fines for illegally overweight trucks has not been taken up by the Senate.

Toll roads, which are found in Ohio, Illinois, and 27 other states, were specifically excluded from road-funding bills in both the House and the Senate.

On Wednesday, Democrats provided eight votes on the gas tax increase, but too few of the 26 Republicans were willing to support the election-year tax hikes pushed by Richardville to get the 20 votes needed for passage. Many were conservative Republicans who have signed no-tax-increase pledges, and their refusal to yield drew praise from tea party-affiliated groups such as Americans for Prosperity.

Snyder said changes in registration fees -- approved in different forms by both chambers and still not ready for his signature to become law -- which could raise a few hundred million dollars, were a mark of progress. He said he hoped the Legislature would at least approve a change from a cent-per-gallon fuel tax to a percentage tax so the state would receive more revenues as the price of fuel increases.

Richardville had initially proposed a gas tax rising as high as 15.5% after four years and raising an estimated $1.2 billion a year, once fully implemented. After a series of defeated votes Wednesday night, Richardville tried to get a 7% gas tax approved, which also failed.

The House passed a bill in May providing for a 6% wholesale gas tax, estimated to be revenue neutral for cars and raising a little more than $30 million a year more from trucks that use diese fuell. It had not passed the Senate late Thursday.

Nystrom, whose group representing road builders had pushed hard for a funding increase, said "the public is highly frustrated with the state of our roads, and yet the elected officials want to continue to analyze it.

"We've taken a couple of steps forward to set the table, but we're far from finding a solution," he said. "It comes down to political will, no matter what year it is. Yes, it's an election year, but political will is lacking on this issue and until we find it, we're going to see our system deteriorate further."

But Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, who was among those to oppose the tax hike proposals, said the Legislature was rushing to try to fix a huge problem all at one time.

Many Michigan residents "literally can't afford more increases," Green said.

Studley predicted "lawmakers will hear a lot from their constituents, who after all this debate and study and the worst pothole season in a decade, were looking at lawmakers to do their job."

(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

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