Howes: Road fiasco brewing for Snyder, GOP

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The Legislature's lame-duck abdication on a Michigan road plan is shaping up to be a political fiasco for Gov. Rick Snyder.

Not the best way to start a second term. The polling is not encouraging. The campaign to sell a ballot question proposing to raise the sales tax to 7 percent is in disarray. A respected economist says the measure would cost taxpayers $410 million in lost deductions on their federal income taxes.

Daniel Howes

And a one-time Republican candidate for Congress, Paul Mitchell of Saginaw, founded the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals to oppose the proposed $1.2 billion road package financed by a one-point increase in the state sales tax.

What's the oracle of "relentless positive action" to do? Sound uncharacteristically negative by downplaying tax implications of the measure headed to voters in May and enlisting a new consultant that intends to highlight what it calls "not just dangerous roads, but fatal roads."

Maybe so. But tactics conjuring crumbling concrete, blown tires, bent rims and traffic fatalities are sure signs the Frankenstein road package passed in lame duck and signed by the guv is in trouble — and the administration knows it.

The Detroit Regional Chamber and Business Leaders for Michigan back the effort because of what it's trying to achieve, if not necessarily how the Legislature went about it or what it delivered. But an Old Reliable, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, is split, signaling that a decision on its support could be weeks away.

The governor last Tuesday met with the chamber's board to present "all the rationale and the immense business case for their support and action," his spokeswoman confirmed in an e-mail Monday. Whether he'll get it for the far-less-than-perfect plan signifies just how archly political basic infrastructure funding has become.

Not encouraging in a state that has not increased its gas tax since 1997; that does not use the proceeds of said tax exclusively to fund road repairs; that spent $1 billion less per year than neighboring Ohio over the past eight years; that cannot forge anything approaching a bipartisan consensus on basic infrastructure funding over the long-term.

The campaign to sell voters on the plan is stumbling. On orders from the governor's office, a team of well-respected (and well-known) consultants quit six weeks or so into a four-month effort, wasting valuable time and bolstering the perception the ballot question promises to be a tough sell.

All of which, natch, emboldens the no-more-taxes crowd in the Legislature. A failed ballot measure would become a rationale to block any effort to pass a road tax increase later in the year, guaranteeing that financing road repairs would claim increasingly large chunks of the state's general fund.

Maintaining the status quo would not cost nothing. It augurs less general fund money for job training and higher ed, to name two; a piecemeal approach to road and bridge repair; an implied statement about the relative unimportance of maintaining transportation infrastructure in the state that put America on wheels.

The irony is too rich to ignore, proof that Snyder's relentlessly positive approach cannot easily overcome resistance from this own party, the heads-in-the-sand crowd or both. Should the ballot question fail on May 5, the defeat will be considered one for the governor — even though the legislative punt is a legacy that belongs to the last session's House Republican caucus.

This will be an uphill battle. Snyder & Co. are betting the spring thaw, complete with bone-jarring potholes and rutted roads, will arrive just in time to persuade enough voters to support the flawed plan. That's a big maybe, as recent polls suggest.

Michigan stands at a critical economic inflection point. Its bellwether auto industry is on its longest growth spurt since the 1960s. Its defining major city, Detroit, has emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. And its unemployment level is the lowest its been since 2002.

Finding a way to maintain and repair the state's roads and bridges more effectively isn't the only priority in a broad-based economic comeback. But it's an important one that Great Lakes rivals appear to understand with more clarity than Michigan.

A failed ballot question in May and another season spent dodging potholes may be just to combination needed to prove there's got to be a better way.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at