Shirkey: Senate road plan will be ‘dramatically different' than Whitmer's

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, speaks with reporters following the Senate session on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, in Lansing,

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate is off to a slow start in 2019, but Majority Leader Mike Shirkey is planning big action on the budget, road funding and a no-fault auto insurance reform plan he hopes to pass as soon as next month.

Speaking to reporters this week, the Clarklake Republican promised any Senate road funding plan will be “dramatically different than a 45-cent gas tax increase," a reference to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal to hike fuel taxes by 45 cents per gallon from the current rate of 26.3 cents.

Whitmer is urging lawmakers to adopt her proposal as part of the fiscal year 2020 budget, but Shirkey wants to separate the two issues. While the Senate budget could start to take shape next week and will likely reallocate more money to road repairs, the upper chamber intends to develop a longer-term road funding solution independent of the 2020 spending plan.

“That will likely include some new revenue, but not a lot,” Shirkey said Thursday of the long-term road funding plan the Senate will eventually present as an alternative to Whitmer’s. 

The governor’s gas tax plan would generate $2.5 billion a year in new revenue, but $1.9 billion of it would go to fix the state’s crumbling roads. She has challenged GOP lawmakers who oppose her plan to present an alternative but said she won’t sign a budget without a “real” roads solution.

The House is also expected to propose an alternative and is considering ways to cut other spending to find more money for roads. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, has also said he wants to devote sales taxes paid on gasoline to roads but has not said how he’d do so without slashing school funding dependent on that revenue.

Under Shirkey’s leadership, the Senate has so far voted to advance 12 of its own bills through the first 100 days of the new session, a significantly slower pace than other recent terms and far fewer than the 41 bills so far advanced by the House.

The small-government Republican favors a deliberative approach, as evidenced by Senate development of a pending plan to reform the state’s no-fault auto insurance system.

“It’s been exceedingly deliberative,” he said of no-fault insurance talks, “and it’s included both chambers, of course not necessarily in public conversations. Interest groups across the board have engaged.”

The upper chamber has held weekly committee hearings on the insurance system and could release its plan in coming weeks, at which point Shirkey expects fast action.

“My target is to get something through the Legislature (in) early May and get it to the governor,” Shirkey told reporters.

As introduced in January, Senate Bill 1 laid out a framework for the pending plan, signaling an “intent” to end the state’s unique requirement that auto insurance plans include lifetime medical benefits by allowing motorists to choose other coverage levels.

The outline legislation also hinted at a possible fee schedule for medical providers that would limit them to collecting a “statutorily determined amount that is a reasonable payment” from auto insurers representing injured motorists.

Various no-fault auto reform ideas have been debated for years, “it’s just how they’re packaged together,” Shirkey said.

“Doing a mandated fee schedule for (medical) providers is not my first choice, nor is a mandated (premium) reduction to insurers. ... Neither are taken off the table, though.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan pushed a no-fault auto insurance reform package in the state House in 2017, but the plan ultimately failed amid opposition from other Detroit Democrats and a contingent of Oakland County Republicans.

Duggan testified in a Senate committee earlier this year and has said he sees “very, very different dynamics” in the Legislature this term, especially the Senate, where several candidates he backed last fall now hold seats.

The mayor has not had a major hand in recent negotiations, Shirkey said, but Duggan might prove a key player when a plan is introduced and Republicans are searching for Democratic votes.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that before we, you know, unveil everything that we might, I might, personally call him and say, ‘Hey this is what we’re thinking about.’ It’s always nice to have the mayor’s support.”