Frustration at Mackinac

May 31, 2012

Two days ago, a beaming Gov. Rick Snyder opened the annual conference of our state?s economic and political elites on an upbeat note. He cited the official themes the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce set for their annual Mackinac Conference. "Innovation, Collaboration and the Twenty-First Century Global Marketplace." Those are things he himself is all about.

Whether you agree with his positions or not, this governor wants what he thinks are rational policies aimed at giving this state a future. But the morning after his triumphant welcome, the governor had to again admit defeat over an issue that shouldn't even be an issue: Road funding. Too many Michigan roads are in poor shape, and a whole lot more are rapidly getting worse. Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Transportation estimated ninety per cent of our roads are in good or fair condition, which seemed too high to me.

But the state also calculated that unless we start investing far more heavily in our roads, only 44 percent will be in acceptable shape a mere eight years from now. That would be a disaster.

This was no surprise to Gov. Snyder, who last year urged the legislature to start spending more heavily on the roads, primarily by increasing the vehicle registration fee. But even though his party controls both the House and Senate, the lawmakers ignored him.

This year, the governor tried again. He proposed raising an extra $1.4 billion a year for our roads. He wanted to do that by a combination of a more modest vehicle registration fee increase, plus a nine-cent-a-gallon boost in the gas tax.

There's no more essential tax increase. Not fixing the roads will cost us all heavily in the long run. According to the federal government, drivers in the Detroit area already pay an average of more than $500 a year more because of bad roads.

But the governor once again couldn't get his fellow Republicans in the legislature to give his transportation package the time of day. Yesterday, he was forced to admit that, "given that this is an election year, I don't see that topic being addressed."

Neither the governor nor the state senators have to run for re-election this year, but every member of the state House does.  Some are Tea Party Republicans who would oppose any tax increase, even if the Martians invaded. But the governor's bigger problem was the rest of his party. Some feared primary challenges from anti-tax radicals. Others reportedly feared conservative voter backlash in the general election. So the governor was forced to give up. He says he might try to get his bills through next year, or in a lame duck session after November's election. But there's always another election, and next time, the state Senate will be up too.

What the governor proved last year was that he could get the Legislature to go along with his agenda, mostly so long as it was what they wanted to do. Leadership consists of getting them to move out of their comfort zone. There may be no issue more critical to Michigan than transportation. And when it comes to roads and bridges, Gov. Snyder so far has failed to demonstrate an ability to lead.