House Dem leader: Whitmer's 45 cent gas tax hike likely won't happen

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — House Minority Leader Christine Greig effectively said Thursday that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent gas tax increase is dead, declaring it is an “extreme” that likely won’t happen.

The Farmington Hills Democrat said she’s been involved in quadrant meetings with the governor and other legislative leaders regarding the budget and encouraged GOP leaders to reveal their plans for road funding.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig said: “I’m not going to do a hypothetical on 45 cents when we’ve had a lot of conversation that that’s probably the extreme that won’t happen.”

But Greig declined to do so because of an agreement to keep the plans confidential for now. Republican leaders have cited the same reasons for keeping mum on their proposals.

When asked whether any House Democrats were willing to put Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent gas tax increase up for a vote, Greig said the caucus was “willing to solve the problem, but we are waiting for negotiations to happen first.”

“I think its clear that we’re starting on the edge with the 45 cents and we’re starting with some of these ridiculous ideas on the MPSERS and we’ll move our way to the front,” said Greig, referring to a plan developed by the conservative West Michigan Policy Forum to bond teacher pensions.

“I’m not going to do a hypothetical on 45 cents when we’ve had a lot of conversation that that’s probably the extreme that won’t happen.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, similarly said Thursday he supported other options to finance more state aid for road repairs beyond Whitmer's gas tax increase. 

Greig’s comments come a day after Republican leaders announced plans to finalize a 2020 state budget plan without a long-term road funding deal, calling Whitmer’s concerns over a potential government shutdown a “fabricated crisis.”

Whitmer accused lawmakers Wednesday of “playing games” and “screwing around” while roads crumble and schools suffer. On Thursday, Whitmer's spokesman said the governor wasn't wedded to "every part" of her budget, but noted its the only comprehensive plan "that raises the $2.5 billion in new revenue we need each year to improve public education, close the skills gap, clean up our drinking water, and fix the damn roads."

“Governor Whitmer has made it clear that she’s not signing a budget that doesn’t include a real plan to fix the roads," spokesman Zack Pohl said. "...The governor stands ready to work with the Legislature, but no real alternative plan has even been proposed for her consideration.”

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox was quick to respond to Greig's statement, noting Whitmer's gas tax hike "was always running on empty."

"The people of Michigan have rejected it since its announcement, and now with her own party leaving it dead on the side of the road, it’s time for Gov. Whitmer to get real and walk back to the negotiating table," Cox said in a statement. 

Whitmer's plan would phase in the 45-cents-per-gallon fuel tax increase over two years, eventually generating $2.5 million in new revenue. Once fully implemented, it would boost road funding $1.9 billion over current spending levels and end a $600 million General Fund dedication for more road aid, freeing up that money for schools and other priorities.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering have said they’ve provided a list of funding options to Whitmer that would include “material, new revenue” including some kind of gas tax increase.

Greig called the West Michigan Policy Forum’s plan to delay debt repayment on teachers pensions to free up money for roads the equivalent of “refinancing your car that already has like 200,000 miles on it.”

“It's fiscally irresponsible to do and it's playing games with our teachers' pension fund,” she said.

House Democrats have proposed other solutions to generate $2.5 billion a year more for roads that chip away at the proposed 45-cent gas tax increase, Greig said, including taxing heavy trucks and closing corporate tax loopholes.

Ananich said he “supported the governor’s budget” and her desire to “solve the problem” with one gas tax hike. But “obviously, I think there’s other ways to get to solving the roads debate," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said that he wants more road question, but “obviously, I think there’s other ways to get to solving the roads debate," he said.

Ananich said he’d personally like to explore the possibility of reining in outstanding Michigan Economic Growth Authority tax credits that were used to keep businesses in the state during the Great Recession, which he said could free up money for roads.

There are billions of dollars worth of the tax credits remaining, mostly with the Detroit Three automakers, through 2031. Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. renegotiated their tax credit agreements at the state's insistence to deal avoid future budget crises by capping annual payouts.

“I think there’s a lot of temperature in the Legislature, I think in the state of Michigan, that picking winners and losers to that degree, we might need to take a look at that,” he said.  “You’ve got to be careful when you’re looking at existing contracts, but I think the economic environment is dramatically different than it was when those were issued, and that could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars.”