Snyder hopes for road funding deal

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative leaders broke off negotiations on road funding Wednesday evening after a third closed-door meeting, but the governor expressed optimism a deal could be reached Thursday.

They plan to resume negotiations at 8 a.m. Thursday on the Legislature’s last scheduled day of session, leaving Snyder’s long-sought bid for $1.2 billion in more annual road funding hanging in the balance.

“Obviously we’re getting down to the wire,” said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing.

Emerging from what he called a “very constructive meeting,” Snyder said the Legislature could, in one workday, approve a compromise road funding plan that’s been two years in the making.

“It’s amazing how this process works,” Snyder said. “Logic is not always the driving force.”

Snyder said he and legislative leaders are trying to pull together a road funding plan that generates $1.2 billion, doesn’t deplete other areas of the state budget, dedicates all taxes at the pump to transportation and doesn’t harm low-income and moderate-income workers.

“They’re not easy principles to reconcile,” Snyder said.

Legislators from both parties hoped a compromise could be reached that balances the conservative House GOP’s desire to limit tax increases at the pump with Snyder and the Senate’s goal of boosting spending for road and bridges ahead of the 2015 pothole season.

Leaders scheduled conference committee meetings Thursday morning to allow them to move any compromise legislation quickly.

“Nobody wants to go home tomorrow night saying it didn’t happen,” said Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, on Wednesday. “All sides have to compromise.”

House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said there’s a deal in the works, but he declined to reveal specifics. Democrats have been pushing for tax relief for low and moderate-income residents to help offset higher gas taxes or vehicle registration fees, though.

“I think things have progressed well,” Greimel told The Detroit News. “And I think it’s likely that we’ll get something done tomorrow.”

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, pegged chances the Legislature could pass a road funding bill Thursday at “above 50 percent.”

“Starting in the morning, I think things are going to get serious,” Richardville told reporters. “The rubber will hit the road.”

Richardville said if negotiations on road funding fall apart before Thursday’s planned adjournment, it would be because of “a lack of cohesive leadership.”

As the negotiation sessions played out, tensions began to strain Wednesday between some parties trying to broker a deal.

Whitmer and Greimel said Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, signaled an interest in letting voters decide on a road funding plan instead of taking legislative action.

“There seems to be an unwillingness on the part of those in control to fix the roads legislatively,” Greimel said.

Bolger spokesman Ari Adler denied the speaker wants to punt the issue to voters.

“The speaker is open to all of the plans that are on the table right now,” Adler said. “He takes umbrage with the idea that Gretchen Whitmer is spreading that he is the one pushing the idea of going to voters because the House Republicans have shown that we don’t need to do that.”

Snyder, Richardville and Democrats disagree with Bolger over competing plans.

Bolger’s plan shifts existing sales tax revenue from fuel sales to funding road repairs and relies on economic growth to replenish lost money for schools and cities.

Richardville’s plan, which Snyder prefers, more than doubles the existing 19-cent-per-gallon gas tax by converting it into a new percentage-based gas tax of 15.5 percent by 2018.

House Republicans contend their plan is superior because it does not raise taxes. But senators from both parties, as well as House Democrats and Snyder, have expressed concern with banking on consumer spending to replenish revenue lost from Bolger’s proposed fund shift.

Negotiations have centered on finding a way to blend the two plans in a way that increases revenue while not harming K-12 schools and municipalities and causing a spike in gas prices at the pump.

“That’s striking the balance, and that’s a tough combination,” Snyder said.

Richardville said legislative leaders are still considering passing one plan to raise new revenue for roads and then putting a different option before voters on a statewide ballot, such as an increase in the 6 percent sales tax.

But the majority leader signaled he would prefer a legislative solution and avoid going to the ballot.

“I wouldn’t see that as a model of success necessarily,” Richardville said. “It’s very tough to fix things once you put them in the constitution. I think we’re being very careful about making those kinds of decisions.”

A ballot initiative requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to be sent to voters.