August 27, 2014 at 8:49 am

Land proposes cutting 75 percent of federal gas tax

Land (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Washington— Republican U.S. Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land proposed Tuesday slashing federal gas taxes by 78 percent to four cents a gallon and letting states like Michigan decide whether to replace the revenue for highway and bridge construction.

Land, a former two-time secretary of state who oversaw the licensing of Michigan’s drivers, proposed gradually cutting the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents to 4 cents a gallon over an unspecified period of years. The move would effectively end most federal rules for U.S. highway travel and, her campaign argues, let states divert money from mass transit and other road-related projects that don’t make sense.

Michigan’s pothole-marked roads and bridges have been the focus of debate as the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder have sparred over how to increase state funding by as much as $1 billion to $1.5 billion more a year.

Land argues that lifting federal requirements would allow more money to be spent directly on roads and bridges.

“If we reduce the federal gas tax, states like Michigan will be free to design their own transportation funding mechanisms rather than a one-size-fits-all approach like the government is doing with health care,” Land said in a Tuesday statement. “Let’s let Michigan determine how much money we need and the best way to use it.”

She attacked rival U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, in a new 30-second TV ad released Tuesday for saying Congress “siphons” off gas tax revenue when Michigan gets more highway funding from the federal government than it sends to Washington. “On Congressman Gary Peters’ watch, Michigan’s gas taxes are siphoned off by Washington — instead of staying here and being spent on Michigan’s crumbling roads,” the ad says.

But Michigan received $1.03 in highway funding for every $1 in federal gas taxes collected in the state in 2012 — the latest year data is available, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Federal road funding policies have been in place since Congress created the trust fund in 1956. The current highway bill was written by Rep. Dave Camp, the Midland Republican who chairs the House Ways & Means Committee. In July, it passed 367-55, with all Michigan members except Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, voting in favor of the bill.

Land’s campaign released a statement from Camp supporting her approach.

“At every step of the way, I have faced Democratic opposition that simply wants to raise the gas tax on those who can least afford it to continue a status quo on highway funding,” Camp said. “Our highway system funding is badly in need of reform. I applaud Terri Lynn Land for putting forth an innovative approach that will produce better results for Michigan roads without raising taxes.”

Michigan Democratic Party spokesman Josh Pugh responded that Land’s plan “is far-fetched and irresponsible. It would liquidate the highway trust fund, reject over a billion dollars in federal funds and cede all control to a Republican Legislature that left for vacation without fixing this problem. Michiganders deserve common sense solutions, but Ms. Land's proposal is a far cry from that.”

The Michigan Laborers District Council that represents construction workers also criticized Land’s approach.

“Terri Lynn Land’s plan is short on details, and I don’t see how it will lead to safer roads and bridges for Michigan,” said Geno Alessandrini, business manager for the Michigan Laborers District Council. “Her plan only calls for cutting much-needed federal dollars from infrastructure investments, which is not a new idea — and not a very good one at that.”

Land’s proposal is similar to a GOP proposal supported by four Michigan Republicans called the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would reduce the federal gas tax from the current 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents per gallon during the next five years. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, says the government “would retain enough revenue to continue to maintain the interstate system.”

Land’s campaign criticized federal rules and priorities, citing a conservative Heritage Foundation fact sheet issued earlier this summer. They include a policy dating to the 1970s that requires states to return the land around highways to the same or better condition after repairs — meaning they can’t leave piles of dirt or scarred land.

Congress also currently uses some highway trust fund money for buses, mass transit and other programs. Detroit’s M-1 light rail project won $25 million in federal funding from a Transportation Department grant program and is seeking another $12 million.

To receive federal highway funding, states must agree to certain highway safety measures, such as mandatory seat belt use, limits on drunken driving and speed limits. It’s not clear how states could be required to follow those rules under Land’s plan since they wouldn’t receive much federal highway funding. They must also pay “prevailing wages” under federal law for highway repairs, and some conservatives argue states could pay less for highway repairs without the requirements.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com