Senate GOP leader seeks to kick-start road aid talks
Lansing — Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof challenged House Republican and Democratic leaders Tuesday to schedule a conference committee meeting on a $1.2-billion road funding deal that was close to being clinched a week ago.
But it was met with some resistance from House Speaker Kevin Cotter’s office.
Road funding talks broke off last week when Gov. Rick Snyder said negotiations reached an impasse on the issue of tax reductions, which would be attached to a comprehensive package that would include a fuel tax hike and a shift in state spending priorities. Senate and House Republican and Democratic leaders have been meeting with the GOP governor in road funding talks during the summer and fall.
“The leaders reached an agreement and met to finalize the details last week, but progress stalled,” said Meekhof, R-West Olive. “At this point we are too close to a resolution to leave this deal on the table.”
Snyder and legislative leaders recently discussed an unspecified $800 million increase in fuel taxes and vehicle fees and a shift of $400 million from other spending.
Meekhof said he wants the conference committee to meet and develop a compromise bill for votes by the House and Senate.
“Our citizens demand results and our state needs better roads. Rather than place blame and assign fault, I want to see the House take action in conference committee,” the Senate leader said in a statement. “The House is in the position to move this process forward, and I encourage leadership to convene the committee as soon as possible.”
He was backed by Sen. Jim Ananich of Flint, the Democratic leader, but their appeal for a House-Senate conference committee didn’t appear to sit well with Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.
“Senate Majority Leader Meekhof abruptly left the last quadrant meeting early because Rep. (Tim) Greimel (House Democratic leader) changed his mind on an income tax cut, so he should know there is no deal,” Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said. “Speaker Cotter has been working with the governor on the issue since then, and he remains hopeful we can find reliable support for a permanent road funding solution.”
Republicans have talked about attaching a reduction in the state’s 4.25 percent income tax to the road bill. But Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, objected that the idea might lead to cuts in other critical state services.
The skirmish indicates lawmakers remain firmly at odds over the best way to generate at least $1.2 billion in annual extra money for road and bridge repairs.
A conference committee, consisting of leader-appointed members from each chamber, is used to resolve differing versions of the same bill passed by the House and Senate. Committee members convene, negotiate send out a compromise bill for votes by the House and Senate.
Ananich supported Meekhof’s call, saying at some point discussions need to end and lawmakers need to vote.
“There’s a point in time when we do have to have some action,” Ananich said. “I get the point he’s talking about -- kick it out on the floor, put it up for a vote and see what happens.”
House Republicans in June passed a plan that would largely cut or shift spending. About $700 million would come from projected extra state revenues in the years ahead along with money switched from a jobs fund and the elimination of an income tax credit for low-income earners.
In July, the Senate voted to increase both the state’s 19-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and 15 cent diesel tax to 34 cents and dedicate income tax revenue to roads while triggering income tax cuts if revenues rise by more than inflation. The $1.4 billion plan required a rare tie-breaking vote by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.
Business Leaders for Michigan — a group representing 80 of the state’s leading corporations — and the Michigan Municipal League said Tuesday they support Meekhof’s call for a conference committee vote on a package that would include $800 million in tax and fee increases and $400 million in spending shifts.
“We have serious concerns about any proposal that relies on using more than $400 million in General Fund revenues,” Business Leaders for Michigan President and CEO Doug Rothwell said in a joint statement with the Municipal League. “Using the General Fund beyond that level isn’t sustainable and puts other critical needs at risk — ranging from potential Medicaid shortfalls and less money for community services to higher tuition bills and weaker efforts to attract jobs. These priorities are just as important as fixing potholes.”
The Municipal League — which represents the state’s cities, urban townships and villages — said raising taxes and fees that involve the users of the roads is the best way to fund road and bridge repairs over the long term.
“We believe the fairest solution is one that relies on the users of our system to pay for its upkeep and repair — gasoline taxes, registration fees or similar revenue sources,” league Executive Director and CEO Dan Gilmartin said. “Michigan needs this problem solved once and for all — and solved the right way.”