Snyder keeps eye on infrastructure for State of State

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Fourteen months after signing a new road funding law and one year after vowing to “fix” the Flint water crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder continues to stress the importance of infrastructure investment as he prepares to deliver his annual State of the State address.

The governor is scheduled address a joint session of the Michigan Legislature on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

The Snyder administration is offering few details about the speech, a prominent forum the governor used last year to focus almost exclusively on Flint, where residents continue to rely on bottled and filtered water for their daily needs following more than $234 million in state aid.

The Flint crisis continues to haunt the Republican governor. But he otherwise remains upbeat about the state’s growing economy, including an unemployment rate that is near a 15-year low and a new law positioning Michigan as a leader in the burgeoning autonomous vehicle industry.

Flint frustrated a year after Snyder’s ‘fix it’ promise

“Given what we have accomplished in the past year and what we have recently been talking about in terms of future needs, it shouldn’t surprise anyone what the major themes will be,” Snyder spokesman Ari Adler told The Detroit News in an email.

“I can tell you the governor will be addressing numerous accomplishments and priorities, including those in the areas of mobility, educational accountability, infrastructure improvements and strengthening our communities.”

Asked last week about possible uses of $330 million in one-time surplus funding Michigan officials will have available for the 2018 budget, Snyder cited a recent report by his 21st Century Infrastructure Commission suggesting the state will eventually need some $4 billion a year in new funding to modernize its transportation, water and communications infrastructure.

While the administration has quietly floated the possibility of imposing a small fee on sewer systems or local water bills, Snyder told The News last month he did not want “to speculate on a revenue source, but it’s clear we need to invest more in our infrastructure.”

Republican political consultant Tom Shields said he is not expecting huge fireworks from Snyder in his seventh State of the State address, suggesting the GOP-led Legislature appears poised to continue taking a more active role in state policy making.

“Maybe he’ll surprise us all, but he has taken more of a low-key management approach I think to state government at this point in time than he has introducing brand new initiatives that change the way we do things,” Shields said. “I think he made a lot of those changes in his first three or four years.”

Republican legislators are pushing to cut and slowly eliminate the state’s 4.25 percent personal income tax. Snyder will probably be “very cautious” about a rollback because of spending commitments set to hit the books in coming years, Shields said.

The governor signed a $1.2 billion road funding plan in late 2015, but the proposal was not as large as he originally proposed and has not yet fully kicked in. The plan will eventually redirect $600 million a year in general fund revenue toward transportation.

Business Leaders for Michigan, an influential group that includes executives from some of the state’s largest companies and universities, released its own infrastructure study last week showing that Michigan’s per-capita spending on transportation, water and energy infrastructure each trail the national averages.

The study pegged the state’s infrastructure gap at approximately $4 billion, much like the commission report. The business group suggested officials look to generate new revenue from infrastructure users rather than broad general purpose taxes.

The Business Leaders for Michigan study noted that Washington, D.C., created a “water system replacement fee” to cover costs associated with renewing and replacing underground service lines.

“Michigan has largely been struggling to fund ‘fair to good’ levels of infrastructure when we should be striving to fund ‘better or best’ levels,” BLM President and CEO said Doug Rothwell said in a statement.

“Simply put, we must become far more strategic about our infrastructure investments. For too long, we’ve been putting out fires. We need to lay out a comprehensive plan for fixing, maintaining and expanding our infrastructure so it supports our needs now and in the future.”

Snyder announced the creation of the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission during last year’s State Address, pointing to a “statewide infrastructure challenge” beyond Flint. He later asked legislators for an initial $165 million to create a new Michigan Infrastructure Fund, but they approved $5 million in the current year budget.

A massive sinkhole that opened last month in Fraser has reinforced the importance of underground infrastructure, said Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, who has publicized her hope that the governor uses his speech to pledge financial help for the crisis.

County officials have said it could cost more than $100 million to fix sewer line collapse in an area along 15 Mile in Fraser.

“It really is sort of the canary in the coal mine if you will because the governor and so many others have been talking about how we have to invest in our infrastructure,” Miller said in a Friday episode of “Off The Record” on WKAR-TV in Lansing.

“We know above ground you run into a pothole you feel, you see it, you know you to fix it, but what’s underground has a huge impact on our quality of life, and this certainly is a very vivid demonstration of that.”

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat who has launched her campaign to be Michigan’s next governor, said she wants to hear Snyder’s latest plans for Flint and other top priorities.

“I want to hear what the plan is on health care if his party devastates all the work we did on Healthy Michigan,” Whitmer said, pointing to the state’s unique form of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Snyder supports Healthy Michigan but if faces an uncertain future as President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress look to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act.

“I want to hear how we’re going to make our schools lead the country again,” she continued.

Expect Snyder to devote some of his Tuesday night speech to call for action on other unfinished business. It may include reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, as he first called for in a May 2015 special message.

Republican consultant John Truscott noted that debate continues on prison and sentencing reform legislation that stalled last year in Lansing.

“It’s a way to not only save money, but the business community has been really backing it because they just don’t have enough employees,” Truscott said. “With some appropriate training, letting people out at their release date rather than holding them in longer may be one of those things he can talk about.”