Searching for the right solution to fix Michigan's roads

Mar 14, 2014

Recently I criticized the Legislature and State Senator Jack Brandenberg for wanting to roll back state income taxes. He has a bill to cut the rate from 4.25% to 3.9% over three years.

For an average taxpayer, that would mean a tax cut of less than a hundred bucks a year. But it would leave the state with nearly a billion dollars a year less, when it already doesn’t have enough money to maintain the roads or provide other services.

After this bill sailed through the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month, I said I thought it was irresponsible election year pandering.

Later, Sen. Brandenberg called me.

He was warm, earnest, had a sense of humor, and said I had gotten it wrong. He wasn’t pandering in the least, he told me; this is what he genuinely believed. He said this stemmed from an agreement to roll back taxes going back to when Jennifer Granholm was governor.

I thought his calling me took class, and it was clear he really does believe in this. Brandenberg has no need to pander; he is certain to be reelected this fall to a safe Republican seat.

I told him I understood the appeal of a tax cut, but that I didn’t think we could afford it now, given the roads.

To my surprise, he essentially agreed with me. He has heard from a lot of angry constituents, and said he could now live with putting pretty much all of the state’s current billion-dollar surplus into road repair.

When I pointed out that even that wouldn’t do it, Brandenberg also agreed. He said we ought to fix the roads right, building them to last in the best way possible. He doesn’t dispute Rick Snyder’s contention that this would cost more than a billion dollars a year.

But he doesn’t like the governor’s idea of paying for them mostly by raising gas taxes. He wants instead to get voters to raise the sales tax from six to seven percent, and use that money – he thinks it would be $1.2 billion – for the roads.

But why the sales tax?

I said I thought conservatives ought to like raising money from the gas tax, because it was, in a sense, a user fee: The more you drove, the more you paid.

However, the senator told me candidly that this would hurt him badly. The main source of his income is an industrial supply delivery business he founded. The more gas prices rise, the more his costs rise. He thinks by raising sales taxes, we could at least capture some money from out-of-state visitors.

Two guys named Jack, both exactly the same age, both neither starving nor rich, both knowing we need desperately to fix the roads. And yet seeing vastly different solutions.

My guess is that they’d just buy fewer things in Michigan. But regardless, I found it fascinating that the two of us had so much and so little in common.

Two guys named Jack, both exactly the same age, both neither starving nor rich, both knowing we need desperately to fix the roads. And yet seeing vastly different solutions.

But we did agree that we’d all be better off if people spent more time talking to each other rather than at each other.

The Legislature itself might be a good place to start.