By Kathleen Gray
Michigan drivers will get some sorely needed relief from the state's winter-ravaged roads via $215 million in repair funding approved by wide margins in the state Legislature on Wednesday.
The bill, which passed 30-5 in the Senate and 106-2 in the House, includes $100 million for maintenance of Michigan's teeth-rattling, tire-busting roads and another $115 million for pet road projects identified by various legislators as part of the state's mid-fiscal year supplemental budget. The priority list for the special projects will be determined by the leadership of the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Lawmakers have submitted individual projects totaling about $800 million from House members and $800 million from senators, with very little overlap, said Jeff Cranson, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation. A final list for $115 million worth of road projects won't be determined until legislators meet with local officials and MDOT to cull projects into a master list.
Oakland County, for example, has submitted a list of projects worth $31 million to the county's delegation in Lansing for consideration. Ingham County has a dozen or so projects worth $14 million it would like to see on the list, said Bill Conklin, Ingham County Road Department managing director.
And those pet projects are a bone of contention for Democrats. State Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, called it a "slush fund" that could be drained for Republican-proposed projects.
"It would be my hope that projects are more evenly distributed on both sides of the aisle, rather than how previous projects were determined," he said. "That's the most fair way to distribute across the state."
The first $100 million for winter road issues, though, was welcome news to local road agencies. Wayne County expects it will get about $3.7 million from the pot, while Oakland County is expecting between $3.4 million and $3.8 million.
"Overtime is the biggest expense we have right now. We budgeted $2.7 million and we've spent $2.4 million before last night," said Terry Spryszak, director of Public Services and Environment for Wayne County. "So we only have $300,000 for the rest of fiscal year," which ends Sept. 30.
The money will also help pay for an upcoming $600,000 pothole blitz, which will pay for 60 additional seasonal workers to fill the prolific potholes in the county.
In Oakland, the county has already blown through its $12-million winter maintenance budget and is using money earmarked for summer projects, said Craig Bryson, spokesman for the Road Commission for Oakland County.
"If we didn't get this extra money, we would have had to do some significant cutting of spring and summer activities," he said. "But this sounds good; we'll certainly take it."
And as of the end of February, Ingham County had already spent 80% of its winter maintenance budget, which has to last through the end of 2014. The county's cut from the $100 million in state money is $795,000, Conklin said.
"This helps us restore our winter maintenance budget and will get us through November and December," he said.
If the $115 million isn't committed to specific projects by July 1, however, it will go back into the traditional funding formula -- 39.1% for the state, 39.1% for the counties and the rest for local communities.
The extra money for roads may come at the expense of tax cuts proposed for Michigan residents in the House and Senate and by Gov. Rick Snyder. Those cuts would come in the form of either an income tax cut or a resumption of the homestead property tax credit for residents who make less than $60,000.
"I would prefer to see the money spent on roads. I think it's a better bang for the buck for taxpayers," said state Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland. "Our constituents have told us overwhelmingly that 'my flat tire is going to cost me more than my tax rebate.' So put the money into roads."
An additional $115 million reserve fund for pet road projects remains intact in the budget, but if the Legislature doesn't come up with a long-term solution by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 for a $100-million hole in Health Insurance Claims Assessment -- or HICA -- Medicaid reimbursement payments, that reserve fund will be used to fill the HICA hole.
The vote on the supplemental budget came after very different versions of the bills were passed by the House and Senate.
The Detroit Medical Center also will end up getting $3.3 million in state money for programs dealing with high-risk pregnant women, premature babies and infant mortality prevention. That money will pull in an additional $6.3 million in federal funding. That amount is half what the Senate approved, but the House had eliminated the funding altogether.
Conrad Mallett, chief administrative officer for the DMC, said he was grateful that the state decided to continue funding efforts to battle infant mortality.
"The support we provide this important, yet fragile, community, will not diminish," he said in a statement. "Our enterprise will absorb the blow caused by the reduction in funding but, nevertheless, looks forward to future opportunities to partner with the State of Michigan."
The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan didn't get any funding in the supplemental budget, but it did get a promise that it would receive $900,000 from MDOT now, with another $1.1 million to help with start-up costs coming in June.
"This money will get us through 2015 and 2016," said Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA board, allowing the board to hire the staff needed to develop and implement a master plan for public transit in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
"That's the stability we need to do the work we need to do in order to make the case to voters in 2016," he added, noting the board may go to voters for a millage or dedicated vehicle registration fees to provide a constant revenue stream for public transit in the region.
While the support for the supplemental was overwhelming, it wasn't unanimous. State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, voted against the bill primarily because of the money that will be used for the Medicaid expansion, which was authorized through the Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation he called an abomination.
"I do not like this scam called Obamacare. More and more people are finding out truly what a train wreck this is," he said. "And I will not rest until this abomination of the law is put on the ash heap of history."
The bill now moves to Gov. Rick Snyder for his signature, and he is expected to sign the bill quickly, in part, because community mental health agencies -- which will receive $13 million in supplemental funds -- would have run out of money on March 15 without the infusion of cash.
"I appreciate the Legislature's working together to approve this budget supplemental that provides much needed funding to help fix Michigan's deteriorating roads. This has been a significantly harsh winter on many fronts, and particularly devastating in terms of potholes," Snyder said in a statement. "While this funding will be of great benefit in the short term, Michigan still very much needs a comprehensive long-term solution to fix our state's aging roads and bridges.
"This remains a priority, and I am confident that we can work together on a solution."
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