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Complex cuts to much-needed social programs are not the best way to fund road repairs

Sep 8, 2015

According to Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, the legislature is actually close to a bipartisan deal to finally fix the roads.

Finley is close to the Republican leadership, and the News is essentially a Republican newspaper, so it makes sense that they would use his column as a sounding board.

According to the scenario he sketches out today, the deal would involve about $800 million a year in new revenue, and $400 million in “reprioritized” general fund spending, meaning other programs would be cut by about that much. The new revenue would come mostly from a nine-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, plus higher annual vehicle registration fees that would average about $50 dollars per year.

There would also be extra fees and fines for heavy trucks. According to Finley, there is significant Democratic support for this agreement, especially in the Senate. He believes that if this package is passed by the Senate, this would put pressure on Democrats in the House to go along.

Well, stranger things have happened. But I am doubtful, both that this will happen and that this is the best way to fund road repair. We certainly need massive investment in our roads of at least $1.2 billion a year, probably considerably more.

Republicans also really need a solution to the roads problem before the next election. They have huge majorities in both houses of the legislature, and they rightly fear they’re more apt to be blamed for a continuing failure to do anything about fixing the roads.

But here’s why I am skeptical about this agreement’s chances. Some Republicans won’t vote for any new tax, period. Democrats don’t have a lot to gain politically by helping the Republicans pass a deal – other than avoiding the possible charge that it was they who sabotaged an agreement to fix the roads. Plus, apart from politics, this deal calls for cuts of $400 million a year from the general fund budget.

The question is: What would be cut?

The general fund is currently about $10 billion. Much of it goes to maintain our prisons – the biggest single item, plus higher education and Medicaid. This isn’t the general fund of a decade ago. Social programs have been cut and cut again.

Democrats could probably support a bill in which most or all of the cuts come from corrections, but that’s unlikely. Their voters aren’t going to be pleased if they agree to cut education, and even the governor agrees we need to spend more for Medicaid, not less. There’s another problem too. As I understand it, these cuts would have to be renegotiated every year. This could become an annual battle.

All this seems one more unnecessarily complex Rube Goldberg-style solution when a much easier one is at hand: Raise the tax on gasoline at the pump by whatever is needed – 20 or 30 cents a gallon. No muss, no fuss, it’s all done, and nobody will notice after a week. Gas prices are going down, and have fluctuated by as much as 70 cents-a-gallon in the last month.

Doing it that way would clearly make the most sense. Unfortunately, when it comes to common sense, our lawmakers mostly don’t seem interested.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.