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Transportation Funding Talks Lost, Not Forgotten

Tuesday, July 16, 2013   (0 Comments)
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From Gongwer News

Before school dissolution and before Medicaid expansion and reform, the capital was all abuzz about transportation and road funding, but as time has passed and other hot topics come and gone, a solution to Michigan’s ailing infrastructure before 2014 is looking dimmer and dimmer.


After a new Senate Infrastructure Modernization Committee was created to meet with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the House seemed to take the lead on generating ideas and passing legislation, though technically the only legislation both chambers have passed and sent to one another regard aviation fuel changes (HB 4571, HB 4572, HB 4677, SB 415, and SB 416).


But then came the budget and Governor Rick Snyder‘s proposal to expand Medicaid, and subsequently HB 4714, a system reform-type bill that seeks to respond to the federal government’s call to action on Medicaid as it relates to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. After it was passed by the House, the focus has shifted to the Senate – and its members – to either pass the bill or come up with a better idea before the ACA takes full effect.


Though he did not say it outright, Sen. Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw Township), chair of the Senate Infrastructure Modernization Committee, as well as the head of the Senate Medicaid work group, agreed for the most part that the debate over Medicaid has dethroned the debate over transportation funding reform.


The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association also agreed Medicaid expansion has become the new top priority.


“The Medicaid expansion really has taken the wind out of any other sail out there, but we are hearing there are still discussions behind the scenes,” said Lance Binoniemi, vice president of government affairs for MITA. “I don’t think anything official like there was before, but it’s still a major topic the vast majority of the Legislature wants to solve and wants to solve before the end of the year.”


But, Mr. Kahn said, Medicaid has not completely muted transportation talks. He said he still talks to Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), chair of the House committee overseeing transportation discussions, and is optimistic Mr. Schmidt’s committee could still move transportation funding bills introduced long ago.


“Schmidt has been working on the ideas that we were talking about on roads and has said that he’d try to move some of that stuff along as well” Mr. Kahn said. “I expect there will be summer work done on roads and we’ll still have a decision to make on roads and laying something before the voters before the first of September.”


Ideas have ranged from increasing registration fees to simplifying the registration system and the number of classifications; switching to a wholesale gas tax and better enforcement of overweight vehicle fees; or a referendum – which Mr. Kahn was referring to about a solution before September – in which voters decide what to do about road funding.


Mr. Binoniemi said some sort of a referendum has received the “most momentum,” whether that is a for a sales tax dedicated specifically to transportation or a sales tax increase to keep schools and local governments that currently receive money from the tax adequately funded as has been previously discussed by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) (See Gongwer Michigan Report, February 26, 2013).


If a voter referendum were proposed, it must be submitted 60 days before the designated election. So if the Legislature wants to vote on road funding in November, for example, it would need to have some kind of solution prepared no later than September 6. But if that day comes and goes, there are still other opportunities to find a solution for road funding, Mr. Binoniemi said.


And the delay may not be solely caused by other priorities like Medicaid, Mr. Kahn said.


“There hasn’t been, as far as I know, a resolution on three or four things. One is the trust issue,” Mr. Kahn said, likely referring to the distrust that Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) has said she has after details of quadrant meetings regarding transportation funding were leaked (See Gongwer Michigan Report, June 13, 2013).


“Another is how (the administration is) going to structure a package,” Mr. Kahn said. “The third one is how much of this has to be done with a vote of the people versus not. Even the size of the package and the amount of revenue to be raised I don’t think has been agreed upon. Those sort of major things out there need to be discussed and decided, and it chews up a lot of the oxygen.”


In terms of ideas presented, it has at least been agreed upon that the increases in registration fees proposed by the governor is a non-starter. But increasing registration fees hasn’t been completed tossed aside, Mr. Kahn said.


“The most I’ve heard people talk about is 25 percent,” he said. “Targeting them has been discussed too, for certain types of vehicles.”


Simplifying the registration system and the number of classifications is likely going to be part of whatever resolution is agreed upon, Mr. Kahn said. The idea has been raised by Sen. John Pappageorge (R-Troy) and discussed by a Senate committee (See Gongwer Michigan Report, May 14, 2013).


And the issue with a wholesale gas tax is similar to the discussion of registration fees in that questions are being raised about at what level the tax would be and what it would include: following the status quo, keeping the same mechanism or changing it up.


Tire fees and overweight vehicle fees have been raised more on the House end, but both ideas were raised in committee once or twice and rarely discussed further.


Despite other issues taking precedence, the governor’s office assures transportation funding is still a priority for Mr. Snyder.


“Transportation funding is a priority for our administration because it’s a priority for our state. It’s a situation that can’t be ignored. Each year that it gets put off only makes things worse,” said Ken Silfven, deputy press secretary for Mr. Snyder, in an e-mail. “So while other issues are at the forefront right now in terms of public discussion, we remain committed to working with our legislative partners on a solution to this decades-old challenge.”

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