June 30, 2014 at 7:23 am

Snyder's clout questioned after failed push for Michigan road fixes

Construction continues on I-96 in the Livonia area, but the Legislature left on summer break without increasing road repair funding. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s clout is being questioned after a Legislature dominated by his own party left on summer break without giving him the $1 billion-plus road repair funding increase he has sought for more than two years.

He couldn’t persuade a 26-12 Senate Republican majority to pass a tax increase to address a $1.2 billion annual shortfall to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads. The Senate’s GOP leaders couldn’t coax nine of their members or any of the 12 Senate Democrats to approve a modest plan to raise one-third of that amount through fund shifts and limited fee increases.

House and Senate Democratic leaders, who thought they had a deal to support higher fuel taxes in return for increased homestead income tax credits for middle-class residents and seniors, called the Senate’s road funding collapse a “failure of leadership.”

“Republicans are very quick to raise taxes on individuals and families to pay for a massive tax giveaway to big corporations ... but they have completely failed to achieve anything meaningful on what Gov. Snyder claims to be one of his signature issues,” said House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills.

But some longtime political observers with Republican ties say the situation is markedly different from 1997, when then-Gov. John Engler narrowly passed a 4-cents-a-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax. The Senate is more independent and conservative, and Snyder avoids Engler’s arm-twisting style.

Capitol pundit Bill Ballenger gives Snyder credit for even getting a Senate vote on what would have been a substantial fuel tax hike in an election year.

“I’ve been saying all along I’m just amazed that they are looking at tax increases as big as this is on the eve of an election with the tea party out there,” said Ballenger, associate editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter and a state legislator in the early 1970s.

Snyder’s response to the charge of failed leadership has been low-key.

“It didn’t work in terms of all of the things we’d like to get done, but we made progress,” Snyder told reporters. “So let’s just learn from that, move forward and hopefully we can get something wrapped up by the end of the year.”

That is as much as the governor wishes to say now. His administration didn’t respond to The Detroit News’ requests for details of his lobbying efforts for more road funding during two grueling Senate sessions before adjournment June 12.

Snyder’s senior adviser for legislative affairs, former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, was lobbying in the Senate during road funding discussions and debates. As Senate majority leader in 1997, Posthumus helped get the last gas tax increase approved.

John Truscott, president of a Lansing-based public relations firm who worked for Engler, said, “His folks were working extremely hard on” road funding.

What’s known is Snyder participated in a least one conference call from New York with legislative leaders and signed off on proposals by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, to broker a deal. He was back in Lansing and standing by on the final day of debate.

Richardville was the point man, talking to several Republican tax-increase opponents at their desks as well as the 25 other GOP senators in many closed-door caucus meetings.

Senate Majority Whip Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, said he wasn’t contacted directly by Snyder’s office, felt no pressure to vote for increased road funding and got the impression the same was true for other Republican senators.

“Usually, being the (majority) whip, a lot of people come up to me about what’s on their minds, especially when the governor does call them into the back (room),” Brandenburg said. “I didn’t hear that from any of them.”

But Brandenburg, who favored a sales tax hike to pay for more road repairs, said arm-twisting tactics wouldn’t swing his vote because he doesn’t believe he was elected to rubber-stamp proposals by the governor or Senate leader.

The initial road funding plan, approved by Snyder, called for six Democratic votes in return for passage of legislation to increase the homestead tax credit by $200 million. The rest of the proposal was two-pronged:

■Convert the 19-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and 15 cents diesel tax to a 7 percent fuel tax that would rise to 15.5 percent over four years.

■Offer voters an alternative to the plan in November — a 1-percentage-point to 1.5-percentage-point increase in the 6 percent state sales tax that would be dedicated to road repairs.

The effort broke down first because of splits among the GOP senators. About one-third of the 26-member caucus wouldn’t vote for any tax increase, and the other two-thirds were divided between supporting fuel tax or sales tax increases. After the sales tax bill failed in a 24-14 vote, those favoring it voted against the proposed fuel tax hike.

Democrats then balked at two bills that would have helped raise $400 million to $450 million more for roads and weren’t part of the $200 million homestead credit agreement.

Disappointment was swift and blistering.

Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, blasted Snyder for taking a trip to New York while the Senate was in the throes of road funding disarray. Snyder said he went there to argue for a higher bond rating for Michigan.

“The governor’s problem was his own party on this, not ours, and he seemingly had no plan of how to deal with that scenario,” said the Senate minority leader’s spokesman, Robert McCann.

Truscott, Engler’s press secretary when the last gasoline tax increase passed, says criticism of Snyder is unfair because tax increases always are a hard sell in the Legislature.

Public awareness has been raised since Snyder proposed $1.2 billion in added road funding in 2011, but hasn’t reached the level of anger he saw in 1997, Truscott said. Even then, Engler had to work hard for tax hike votes, he said.

“(Engler) basically had to go legislator by legislator and district by district talking to them about the projects it would support,” Truscott said.

Engler’s meetings with as many of the 148 lawmakers as possible “took weeks and weeks” leading up to the tax increase vote, he said.

While Snyder doesn’t favor that kind of arm twisting, Truscott said he respects the governor’s leadership prowess. He noted Snyder in the past month persuaded lawmakers to approve two thorny proposals — a 25 percent increase in the state minimum wage and $195 million in state funding to protect pensions and Detroit Institute of Arts works in Detroit’s bankruptcy settlement.

“We’re not at the point, in terms of public anger, where we were in 1997,” Truscott said about a road tax increase. “It’s still simmering; it just isn’t there yet.”

(517) 371-3660
Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.

Snyder (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)