Whitmer: Residents will be 'furious' about coming potholes

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration is working on a new plan to boost road funding in Michigan, which Whitmer said Wednesday remains "No. 1. issue" in the state.

Whitmer said the plan her administration is considering and debating "will be a substantial step forward." But she wouldn't release details during a year-end interview with reporters inside the Capitol, saying reporters would have to "wait and see."

Gov. Gretchen  Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist speak to reporters on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, during a year-end interview.

"We have an infrastructure crisis that is undeniable," Whitmer said. "And when pothole season hits three and half months from now, people are going to be furious."

The first-term Democrat's comments signaled what had become accepted in the Capitol for months: Her proposed 45-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase is dead. 

The more than 170% tax hike plan would have generated $2.5 billion in new revenue, including a $1.9 billion boost for roads. Republican lawmakers called it dead on arrival, and House Minority Leader Christine Greig called it "the extreme that won’t happen."

House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey instead proposed a school pension debt swap generating an estimated $1 billion annually and dedicating the 6% sales tax on fuel exclusively to road repairs instead of aid for schools and local communities.

Whitmer rejected the ideas as undermining education and too risky to provide stable long-term funding for infrastructure repairs. She also vetoed an extra $375 million in one-time road and bridge repair aid that GOP lawmakers put in the budget. 

Whitmer's session that included Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II touched on a variety of issues that grabbed headlines during her first year in office. But much of the conversation focused on infrastructure funding.

“I did what I said I was going to do,” Whitmer told reporters. “Had the Legislature followed suit or worked with me on those things we could be avoiding the worst pothole season in recent memory, which is what we’re gearing up for.”

Asked if she believed the state needed more than an extra $2.5 billion annually to fix its crumbling roads, Whitmer responded that the price tag climbs "every day that goes by" without lawmakers addressing the problem. However, she wouldn't specify whether her new proposal in 2020 would target more than $2.5 billion.

“They all know this is the No. 1 issue," Whitmer said of state lawmakers. "And when the spring comes again, every one is going to try to point fingers elsewhere. But I had a plan to fix it and they never showed real responsibility and responded with their own."

A Macomb County worker patches potholes on eastbound I-94, north of 8 Mile in St. Clair Shores, Tuesday.

The Legislature's approved transportation budget for 2020 was $5.38 billion, which Republican lawmakers touted as a "record" amount of funding for infrastructure. But Whitmer said the Legislature's proposed budget didn't do enough for a long-term solution and vetoed $375 million in funding for roads and bridges as part of a broader effort to get Republicans back to the negotiating table.

She funneled $25 million of the $400 million lawmakers approved to mass transit.

The funding shortfall for the state's infrastructure is dangerous and hurts Michigan's economy, Whitmer argued.

Chatfield, R-Levering, has pushed to remove the 6% sales tax on gasoline, but hasn't suggested a specific way to hold harmless the sales tax funding for schools and local governments.

GOP leaders have also expressed interest in a conservative business group's idea of issuing a 30-year pension obligation bond to borrow $10 billion and pump that money into the Michigan Public Schools Employees Retirement System. Using bond money to pay down unfunded pension liabilities would free up an estimated $980 million in school aid annually that could be diverted for road and bridge repairs — an idea Whitmer rejected.