Michigan House neutralizes bid to restrict Gordie Howe Bridge spending

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
A rendering of the Gordie Howe International Bridge

Lansing — A day after it was passed through committee, an attempt to delay or halt work on the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Detroit was neutered as the full House on Thursday approved the transportation budget.

The amendment offered Thursday by Rep. Matt Maddock, chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, backpedaled on language that would have stopped the state from spending any money of the bridge project even if those expenditures were reimbursed by Canada.

Critics said the boilerplate language essentially would delay or upend construction on the project, which is expected to have a significant economic impact on Detroit and Canada. Canada has agreed to cover Michigan construction costs in exchange for future toll revenues and reimbursed the Michigan Department of Transportation $83.5 million for work in 2018.

Maddock, R-Milford, suggested Wednesday that the provision would close a “loophole” in the budget and questioned why the state should function as a “credit card for Canada.”

But on Thursday the first-term lawmaker offered to make an exception for spending that is “subject to full and prompt reimbursement from Canada.” The House also added language that would require the Department of Transportation to increase the frequency of its spending reports on the bridge from quarterly to monthly.

“I think the intention of the Gordie Howe language was to bring a little more transparency and accountability to it and the language we came to an agreement on today does exactly that,” said House Appropriations Chair Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron.

The transportation budget was one of six the state House approved Thursday along mostly party lines. The GOP majority’s plans for transportation and school aid budgets were among the more hotly contested because of a controversial shift of the gas sales tax revenue from schools and local communities to roads.

The transportation plan would free up roughly $850 million after a two-year phase-in for road and bridge repairs, Hernandez said. The additional funding is considered the first step in the House’s plan to find savings within the current budget and avoid Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pitch for a 45-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase.

The House plan would phase out 4% of the 6% gas sales tax and replace it with a 4% fuel tax dedicated solely to roads in the first year, then do the same with the remaining 2% gas sales tax in the second year.

Of the $850 million gathered through the gas sales tax, roughly $600 million goes toward the School Aid Fund and the rest toward local government.

House lawmakers plan to hold schools and local governments harmless, at least in the first year. They would backfill the gas sales tax revenue with $500 million currently diverted from the K-12 budget to higher education and another $170 million from a surge in online sales tax collected after the Supreme Court’s South Dakota v. Wayfair decision, Hernandez said.

The higher education budget would be replenished with General Fund dollars, which in turn would be made up for through “continued discussions,” Hernandez said, and cuts across several department budgets, including 25% cuts to information technology costs and 3% reductions to administrative spending.

“This is a responsible first step in ensuring that our roads are funded in a way that doesn’t break the budgets of Michigan families,” said House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. “There will be ongoing conversations with the administration and the Senate, and I look forward to reaching a consensus.”

The transportation budget would cut public transportation services $208,000, transit capital funding $10 million, specialized transit services for the disabled and elderly $2.7 million, a transportation to work program $581,000 and the state Office of Rail $572,000.

Instead, the House plan would create a $13.9 million “incentive challenge fund” that transit agencies could access if they create a plan to eventually ensure 20 percent of their operations are funded by rider fares.

The House's school aid budget would increase classroom funding $226 million instead of the $507 million proposed by Whitmer. The GOP-led House abandoned the governor's plans to use a weighted funding model and put additional dollars toward special education, at-risk and career technical education students.

Democrats opposed the transportation and school aid budgets, arguing they only served to shuffle money to create the appearance of savings. The money to backfill the School Aid Fund is a one-time source that couldn’t be replicated in future years, they said.

“We have to face facts: New revenue for the roads is what it’s going to take to get the job done,” said House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills. “This budget does nothing to raise new revenue but instead shuffles around funding and cuts programs that Michiganders rely on.”

House Democrats also criticized the GOP-majority’s requirement that the state solicit bids to assess the potential sale value of the Blue Water Bridge, four state-owned airports, eight welcome centers and a rail line that runs between Grayling and Gaylord. An amendment offered Thursday by Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, also would require a study of the feasibility of toll roads in Michigan. 

The plan to sell state assets amounted to little more than a “garage sale” to raise money for roads, House Democrats said.

“Who wants an airport or a rail line or, my personal favorite, a welcome center?” said Rep. Brian Elder. “Coming soon: A great big sign that says ‘Welcome to Michigan. It costs $1 to pee at the rest stop.' For what? For more pot hole patch? That’s not good enough for my people.”


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