June 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

THINK

Who says tax hike needed for better roads?

The Michigan Legislature has departed for a summer break after coming up a few votes short on doubling the state gas tax. The issue isn’t gone, however, and it will likely come back up later this year.

Most are in agreement that state roads need more money. But Michigan already has the sixth highest gas tax in the nation and there is plenty of money in the current budget to pay for this need.

On the same day a big gas tax hike went down, the Legislature adopted a state budget that increases 7.3 percent, from $49.52 billion this year to $53.15 billion starting Oct. 1. That $3.63 billion increase is triple the $1.2 billion that Gov. Rick Snyder called for in extra funding for “the state’s No. 1 problem.” Even leaving out federal dollars, the budget will increase some $1.25 billion — the very amount Snyder says is needed for roads.

So if roads are truly the No. 1 priority of citizens and legislators, why are politicians allocating all those extra dollars to other things? It’s a classic bait-and-switch, similar to the ploy known as the “Washington Monument Syndrome” or the “firemen first principle.”

When politicians want to avoid the difficult task of setting priorities within a budget, the easiest alternative is to seek more revenue. So for example, when disagreements on priorities lead to a temporary “government shutdown” in Washington, the government budget managers don’t look to trim things like research grants to study online dating trends. Instead, they shut down the Washington Monument, seeking to impose the maximum inconvenience and generate media stories about how spending has been “cut to the bone.” And when local governments ask for millage hikes, they never admit the money will simply go to support rich fringe benefits and pension liabilities. Instead, they insinuate the money will be used exclusively to support popular police and fire services.

That’s why Michigan legislators are ignoring low-hanging fruit on the state spending tree. Items like the $300 million spent annually on corporate welfare programs. Or the $50 million handed out to wealthy Hollywood actors and production companies. Or the $224 million wasted because of prevailing wage mandates. Or $50 million spent on a form of agribusiness subsidies. The list of fat in the $53 billion state budget could go on.

State government has also hiked spending this year on K-12 education, public colleges and universities, preschool programs, the city of Detroit, municipal revenue sharing, Medicaid, and elsewhere. These areas are seen more favorably by taxpayers, but if roads are truly the No. 1 priority, that’s where the money should go first.

But it is easier to spend taxpayer money on non-necessary government items and then try to sell a tax hike to fund an area that is seen as more essential. Citizens would never vote to raise taxes rather than cut things like corporate welfare — neither should elected representatives.

Jarrett Skorup is a research associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.