In Michigan’s long-running roads saga, Detroit Democrat Harvey Santana nails it: “People are really starting to look at this Legislature in a negative way because of this issue. It’s just embarrassing at this point.”
Here’s a Republican-controlled House whose majority can pull all-nighters to oust philandering colleagues, but it can’t find a way to address basic infrastructure needs in the state that put America on wheels.
Here’s a Republican-controlled Senate whose Judiciary Committee can green-light a plan to allow citizens with special permits to carry concealed weapons in “gun-free” zones at schools and other places, but reach a deal to finance repair of crumbling roads and bridges serving everyone? Nah.
And Gov. Rick Snyder’s accountant-turned-CEO analysis on the perils of robbing from the state’s stretched General Fund apparently rings a tad too responsible for ideologues. He can’t (yet) get his way with his own party on the signature issue likely to define the effectiveness, or not, of his second term.
Too many Republicans fear him less than they do the threat of primary challenges from the right should they accede to anything that raises fuel taxes and registration fees but fails to cut further the state’s flat income tax — already one of the more competitive of its kind in the country.
If they keep this dysfunction up, the governing Republicans will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Now is not the time, folks, not with the state unemployment rate hitting a 15-year low and running below the national average; the auto industry humming; and the energetic recapitalization of Detroit moving ahead.
To recast an automotive metaphor, it’s time to put the pedal to the metal, to lead and to recognize leading requires tough calls on investment that some will neither like nor support. Snyder declared an impasse in road talks Tuesday, but the truth is that all sides basically are agreed on most key issues and fairly close on others.
“It’s a political process,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “They’ve agreed that $1.2 billion is the number. They agree it has to come from new revenue. They just need to figure it out, hit the pause button and get back at it.
“We’ve been talking about roads for four years. This is a basic function of government. This is something only government can do. If we’re in the same place two weeks from now, then I’ll start to hit the panic button.”
Rothwell would not be alone. Crafting a roads package large enough to begin to meet the state’s needs is the price of entry for both regional and global economic battles. It would signal, symbolically and substantively, that the state will do its part to make the Michigan’s business environment more competitive and contemporary.
Neighboring Ohio, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, has spent $8 billion more on its roads and bridges over the past eight years. It shows, as a drive south on Interstate 75 from Monroe to Toledo demonstrates daily.
Meanwhile, the governor of neighboring Indiana this week unveiled a $1 billion, four-year plan to repair roads and bridges, Reuters reported. The plan, partially funded by bonds but not tax increases, would augment the $3.2 billion the state intends to spend on transportation infrastructure projects over the next five years.
Yet politics intrude here. With an election year just months away, Democrats see opportunity in Republican squabbling. A $10 billion General Fund budget that hasn’t increased (in nominal dollars) since 1999, and the prospect that a workable roads solution may not be underway, are the stuff from which bruising campaign ads are made.
Rep. Santana’s right: this is embarrassing. Voters spoke clearly when they crushed the Frankenstein Proposal 1 roads measure, effectively telling lawmakers that they’re paid to find solutions to such basic public policy problems.
The voters were right, too. The longer this impasse lingers, and the more encumbered the final result is, the more likely it will be a political loser to the party in charge because the inaction will be a loser for all of Michigan.
This is basic governing. It’s not engineering and partially financing the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history; not rescuing the Detroit-based auto industry; not granting costly tax incentives to out-of-state companies promising jobs and investment.
For all the good economic news of low unemployment and high auto sales, Detroit redevelopment and a changing narrative of Michigan’s comeback following the Great Recession, financial challenges loom.
Growth in the state’s General Fund remains stagnant. Economic development budgets are shrinking. Infrastructure needs are mounting, and the election-year battle over next year’s state budget is likely to be titanic and politically fraught.
Get a roads deal done and move on. There will be plenty more work to do.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.
Catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.