Road To Nowhere: Michigan Legislature Fails – Again– To Come Up With Funding Stream For Infrastructure

LANSING, Mich. –Michigan’s construction industry came close to getting an infusion of up to $1.7 billion in money to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.  But what’s the old saying?  Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

The Michigan legislature adjourned for its summer recess on June 12, unable to come up with an agreement to raise gas taxes, raise the sales tax, or find some way to raise more money to fix Michigan’s roads and create jobs for tens of thousands of construction workers in the state.   And it won’t come back in session until after the November election.

That failure should sound familiar to workers nationwide: Congress, like the GOP-dominated legislature in Lansing, is similarly stalling on how to fix the nation’s roads and bridges and support its subways and buses.  Labor backs raising the federal gas tax, which hasn’t gone up in more than 20 years, to provide the funds.  But refusal to raise the gas tax is non-negotiable for the U.S. House’s ruling Republicans and filibuster-happy GOP senators.

In Michigan, various proposals were in the mix that would have produced varying revenues for roads, but the ultimate was a plan by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, to impose a new wholesale gasoline and diesel fuel tax amounting to 15.5 percent by 2018, raising the price of gas by 25 cents over the next four years.

That plan would have yielded about $1.7 billion in new money for road repairs, just about what the state Transportation Department has been calling for.  Instead – this being an election year, after all – the votes for passage weren’t there, and Richardville could only point to the legislature’s modest accomplishment in spring of shifting money to raise $283 million new road spending for next year’s budget.

“It’s a difficult vote.  It’s an election year,” Richardville told reporters.  “But sooner or later, you have to bite the bullet and do the difficult things.”  Said GOP Gov. Rick Snyder: “So let’s look on the positive side – we’ve moved closer to getting a long-term solution in place.”

Two days of intense legislative horse-trading on June 11-12 could not come up with a road funding plan.  Several votes failed that would have raised gas taxes to varying degrees.  Eight of the 12 Senate Democrats went along with a plan to raise taxes in exchange for a property tax cut for low- and middle-class families.  That vote failed.  A state Senate proposal to raise the 6 percent general sales tax by 1 percentage point – with more than $1 billion in extra revenue raised going to fix the roads — also failed.

Reaction was swift and severe from observers who wanted those “difficult things” done now, rather than – perhaps – in the Lame Duck legislative session after the Nov. 4 election.

“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.

Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Twp., blamed election-year politics.  He told The Detroit News that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer and labor unions “wanted a ‘no’ vote on this from Democrats so they wouldn’t give Snyder a victory” – a claim the votes belied.

With each $1 billion in road work creating an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 jobs, Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Director Patrick “Shorty” Gleason called Lund’s assertion “ridiculous.”

“That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  No one, and I mean no one, has fought harder for passage of this legislation than labor,” Gleason said.  “Getting this guaranteed stream of revenue accomplishes two of the most important things this state needs: Putting people to work and getting the roads fixed.  But it’s so disappointing that we couldn’t move these legislators to do what’s right for the state.”

“Despite naming infrastructure repair as a top priority for three consecutive years – and despite holding the governor’s office, a House majority and a supermajority in the Senate – Republicans proved themselves to be unfit for the task of leading our state,” House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said.

House Democrats “worked hard on a bipartisan road funding package that would have kick-started repairs to our dangerous roads, but Republicans couldn’t agree to pass the bills and get the job done.  This is a stunning lack of leadership, a dereliction of duty, and an absolute betrayal of the public trust,” he said.  Added Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing:  “We again saw a dearth of leadership bordering on incompetence.”

Also falling by the wayside were bills by Rep. Marilyn Lane, D-Fraser, vice chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.  Left in committees were House Bill 5143, which would halve certain statewide truck weight limits from 164,000 pounds to the federal standard of 80,000 pounds.  And House Bill 5456 would prevent insurance companies from raising auto insurance rates when a driver submits a claim from pothole damage to their vehicle.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has repeatedly pointed out that waiting to repair the roads simply increases costs as time goes by.

“We’ve got thousands of members who are ready to work to fix Michigan’s dangerous bridges and pothole-ridden roads, but thanks to Tea Party obstructionist politics, Michiganders will be forced to continue swerving on our roads to avoid potholes,” said Geno Alessandrini, Business Manager of the Michigan Laborers’ District Council.   Hundreds of his members descended on Lansing for a pro-infrastructure rally and lobbying in mid-June.

“We’ve got buses full of kids driving across dangerous bridges.  We have businesses and families that cannot afford the cost of vehicle repairs.  The reasons for repairing the roads are endless and we know investments in infrastructure benefit the entire state.  We’re calling on legislators to act like union Laborers and get the job done right and on time.  Michigan’s businesses, workers and motorists can’t wait any longer for legislators to do their jobs.”