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Fixing the roads: It's a no-brainer, but no brains rule in Lansing

Dec 15, 2014

Nearly a year ago, as car after car was damaged or destroyed by potholes, State Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville went to see his constituents in Monroe, a town between Detroit and Toledo.

He returned to report that they had a message: “Just Fix the Damn Roads.” This was not especially profound, and the good citizens of Monroe were scarcely alone. Everyone from Marquette to Muskegon wants the roads fixed, and those in metropolitan Detroit probably most of all. This is a no-brainer. But no brains rule in Lansing, and fixing the damn roads is what the Legislature hasn’t done.

This week is their last chance. If they don’t, we’ll have to wait till next year, when we will have even worse roads and a new set of lawmakers who, bizarrely, are expected to be even less inclined to fix them.

What will happen is anyone’s guess. The state Senate has passed a plan that’s hard to understand – probably deliberately so – but which would eventually raise something like a billion dollars a year by increasing the gas tax. The state House’s plan is insulting to the intelligence, and would essentially take money from the schools for the roads.

Evidently this was so that outgoing Speaker Jase Bolger could say he left office without increasing taxes. Democrats say this would be worse than no plan at all.

So we’ll see if our lawmakers can come up with a compromise before leaving for another vacation. My worry is this: Gov. Rick Snyder has said for three years that the minimum needed to get our state’s roads back to acceptable shape is $1.2 billion a year in new money for at least a decade. MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, says what’s needed is more like $2.2 billion.

But what if lawmakers do appropriate a piddly amount of money, much less than needed? This might be the worst option of all. It would mean the roads would keep getting worse, though perhaps a little more slowly. Having just raised taxes for the roads, it would be difficult or impossible to get the Legislature to do it again.

By the way, there is even talk about lawmakers abdicating their responsibility and throwing this on the ballot, perhaps giving voters a choice between two road repair options.

That may have a certain appeal to some, but also amounts to a complete failure of representative government. We elect people and send them to Lansing to study issues and make responsible decisions on our behalf. I think I am a fairly well-informed guy, but have no idea what agriculture policy should be. That’s why we have a Legislature.

Now, they need to figure out a way to fix the roads. Back when he was running for president, Ross Perot once said something to the effect that maybe we could all be given a remote with a clicker, so that we could vote and make policy decisions at home.

I thought that was nuts at the time, because it was. Yet I am reluctant to mention this because our current leaders might think it a fine idea. They have four days to fix the roads. If they don’t, we need to ask some serious questions about whether our democracy really works.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. 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.