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Driving us to ruin - Michigan lawmakers missed again on road funding

Aug 20, 2015

Contrary to what you might think, it is not true that our government in Lansing can’t do anything. Why, just yesterday, the governor reappointed four members to the Michigan Carrot Commission. 

And the state House of Representatives unanimously voted to retroactively recognize last Sunday as Airborne Day, whatever that means.

It’s just that state government can’t do anything meaningful.

Yesterday, one more attempt at trying to fix our dreadful roads fell apart, both because of ideological blindness -- and common sense.

The latest idea was to come up with $1.2 billion a year for the roads by raising $600 million in new revenue and cutting the state’s general fund by the same amount for the foreseeable future.

However, there are more than a dozen Republicans who have taken a pledge never to raise taxes for any reason, no matter how great the need. And to his credit, Governor Rick Snyder got into the act, recognizing this was far too great a cut to the general fund.

That would have almost certainly done terrible damage to education and foster care and whatever social programs have survived after years of tax and budget cuts.

The governor thought more new revenue had to be found. But the ideologues were never going to go for that. This meant that any plan would need a lot of votes from Democrats.

Democrats understandably had conditions. The Health Insurance Claims Assessment needs more money to sustain Medicaid spending.

Republicans weren’t willing. They also wanted Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof to give up attempts to repeal paying prevailing union-scale wages for state construction jobs.

Meekhof would no more do that than a Muslim would give up the Koran. So, eventually, the conference committee gave up on its efforts to get a road bill passed that night.

Ironically, if they had reported out any bill, it would have looked remarkably like Proposal One – loaded down with other stuff.

So once again, the gang who can’t shoot at all failed to make any progress on the issue that voters care about most. It is tempting to wish that some billionaire would appear and lead a free-spending effort to recall every member of the Legislature.

But there’s another solution. We should outlaw the words “tax” and “revenue increase” on pain of death, and talk about “user fees.”

I say, pass a bill saying Michigan is going to assess a new 30 cent a gallon user fee on every gallon of gasoline, all of which has to go to fix the roads. This would totally solve the problem, and be barely noticed. After all, the price at the pump has varied by a much as a dollar and a half a gallon since January – and it is still a dollar less than it was eight years ago.

Even doctrinaire conservatives usually accept user fees, for things like hunting licenses. Well, that’s what this would be – a solution that is simple, easy and, for once, right.

By the way, I’d pay far more than most; I drive more than 30,000 miles a year. But I’d still end up saving money with better roads. And Michigan would again find it easier to attract new business. We desperately need our lawmakers to do the right thing.

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.