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Snyder's push to up road repair funds idles in Michigan Legislature

Monday, September 16, 2013   (0 Comments)
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From The Detroit News:


Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder hasn’t moved the needle in nearly two years since he first called for $1 billion to $1.4 billion more a year in taxes to speed up road and bridge repairs in Michigan.

It’s the next big-ticket item facing lawmakers, but they’ll have to overcome a split in the Republican majority and Democratic dissension for it to proceed.

Nearly a dozen bills with funding schemes — from doubling vehicle registration fees to raiding a pot of money earmarked for parks and nature preserves — sit idle while the governor negotiates with GOP and Democratic leaders on a plan they can pass.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, is asking his party members if the issue remains a priority for them as he compiles a list of legislative goals for the remainder of the year. Spokeswoman Amber McCann said Friday the Republican caucus will talk about it Tuesday.

Without action, the repair tab ticks upward because the miles of roads repaired per year aren’t keeping up with the miles falling apart, according to Snyder administration and construction industry leaders.

By next year, the additional spending needed will approach $2 billion, said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, which lobbies for the heavy construction industry.

“This problem doesn’t go away,” Nystrom said. “With each election, it just gets bigger and tougher for the subsequent Legislature to solve.”

In a 2011 special address, Snyder said the state is losing $3 million a day in the value of its “transportation assets,” or $1 billion a year. He reiterated the need for increased road funding in his state budget presentation early this year.

Lawmakers say they understand the problem but are reluctant to approve tax increases of the magnitude Snyder has proposed.

And the governor still hasn’t sold people such as Deb Coleman, who opposes a tax hike. She and her husband, Steve, pass an under-repair stretch of US-10 as they drive daily from Beaverton to jobs at a printing firm and Dow Corning Corp. in Midland.

“Taxes on gasoline (already) are supposed to go for that,” she said. “It seems that’s supposed to be fixing the roads, and it never really happens.”

Coleman identified what she said may be a key obstacle in the debate. Her impression is the driving in her area is “pretty decent,” but roads in Metro Detroit, where they visit relatives, are “horrendous.”

Compromise possible

State Rep. Wayne Schmidt, leader of House efforts last spring to boost road revenues, said action has been on hold during months of discussions between the four Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and Snyder. Schmidt, R-Traverse City, sounded as though he is ready to accept a less-than-perfect result.

“It’s a mighty ambitious agenda we’ve taken on these three years — the governor and Legislature,” he said. “Now we’re maybe going to have to nibble away at this one a little bit at a time.”

Before Labor Day, Snyder and lawmakers seemed close to a compromise. Richardville said then discussions were coalescing around a two-pronged approach:

  • Replace the 19-cents-per-gallon state gasoline tax (15 cents a gallon on diesel) and 6 percent sales tax on fuels with a single tax raising $1.2 billion more a year for roads. Revenue from the sales tax on fuels now goes mostly to schools and local governments.


  • Ask voters to increase the 6 percent sales tax, likely to 7 percent or 8 percent, to offset revenue lost to schools and local governments from the fuel tax conversion. Voter approval is required because the sales tax rate is set by the state Constitution.

Lawmakers prefer this idea to Snyder’s initial plan, a combination of fuel tax and registration fee increases Richardville said was a “non-starter” among the four legislative leaders involved in negotiations.

But the sales tax plan’s prospects dimmed during the Medicaid expansion fight, said Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing. Republican Senate opponents nearly killed the expansion bill and blocked the state from signing up new Medicaid participants until nearly April.

That is a “setback for the idea the governor is going to be able to get any more of his agenda done,” Whitmer said.

After a recent Senate session, Richardville acknowledged the difficulty in finding a road funding plan with good chances of winning legislative approval. He and Whitmer continued discussions last week while Snyder was on an economic development mission to China, and she said it’s her impression the sales tax proposal still is on the table.

“We’re trying to research whether that would make sense,” Whitmer said. “There still is a dialogue going on ... (and) I’m still optimistic.”

During the trip, Snyder made comments that seemed to indicate he has lowered his expectations on road funding. He told the Associated Press incremental change should be possible, even if a grander plan isn’t.

The governor mentioned his desire to replace the state’s flat-rate fuel taxes with a percentage tax that would boost state revenue as fuel prices rise — helping the Transportation Department keep pace with inflating costs for concrete, steel, asphalt and other road-building materials.

Solution sought

But staffers said the governor’s comments don’t mean he’s backing off trying to boost road funding by $1 billion to $1.4 billion a year.

Spokesman David Murray noted Snyder persuaded the Legislature to add $351 million to road repair spending in the budget that takes effect Oct. 1. It’s a one-shot infusion, however, not a long-term solution.

“Our state’s deteriorating roads are a problem that needs a solution,” Murray said. “The governor remains focused on working with our partners in the Legislature on a variety of approaches because our infrastructure is too important to Michigan’s economic growth.”

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