I have to wonder sometimes how our elected leaders in the Legislature sleep. They spend vast amounts of money getting elected to jobs, the whole purpose of which is to serve the citizens. Then they don’t do that –selling out to special interests, or pandering shamelessly to voters – so they can cling to power for another couple years.
If they were in Congress, I still wouldn’t approve, though it would be easier to understand. Congressmen, after all, can stay in office until they are legally dead, accumulating power and seniority. But if you are a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, you can serve six years maximum, for life. State senators can serve a maximum of eight years.
Now – if you are going to be gone anyway soon, why not do the right thing while you are there? Sadly, that isn’t the way most legislators seem to think. I’ll give you one huge example:
Forget anything morally controversial, like abortion insurance or wolf hunting. Forget anything where there is a legitimate public policy debate, like what to do about failing schools. Instead, let’s talk about the most obvious example: Our roads.
Now, we have no good public transportation in this state, and are not going to get any in the foreseeable future. That’s sad, but indisputably true. We have to get around in our cars. We need big heavy trucks to bring us the stuff we need to live. They, and we, need decent roads to drive on, and Michigan’s are falling apart.
Three years ago, the Legislature itself studied this problem, and concluded we needed to spend about $3 billion a year maintaining our roads. But we are currently spending only a little over a third of that. The result is that our roads are crumbling, and we are all paying a huge price, in car repairs, in wear and tear on our vehicles, in time spent in traffic, in economic damage to the state.
Businesses do not want to move to or expand in a state where the infrastructure is falling apart. Gov. Rick Snyder understands that. Last year, he pleaded for lawmakers to come up with $1.2 billion a year in new money for the roads. That’s the minimum transportation experts say is needed to prevent them from getting worse.
The governor wanted to raise the gas tax, which made a lot of sense. Those using the roads most would pay the most, and the cost of gas fluctuates so much we might barely notice. But the legislators rejected that with contempt. Even though both houses are controlled by the governor’s own Republican Party.
Now we’ve learned that Lansing seems likely to have a surprising billion-dollar surplus this year. But yesterday, Speaker of the House Jase Bolger indicated he had no interest in spending any of it on the roads.
His counterpart in the Senate, Randy Richardville, wants to use it to give voters a small tax cut. They think in an election year that would be the politically popular thing to do. By the way, no, it won’t be enough to fix your next broken axle.
I used to think our form of government worked. These days, I’m not so sure.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.