Dems: Use $542M in budget savings to fix Michigan roads

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Senate Democrats on Thursday nearly won an amendment to put $542 million in “uncommitted” budget funds into Michigan road and bridge repairs, arguing it would be a better use of the money than teacher pension reforms eyed by the Republican majority.

State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township, proposed the amendment as the upper chamber wrapped up work on a $56.1 billion budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018. The Senate plan would trim $270 million in general fund spending proposed by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and hold off on a $266.5 million deposit into the state’s “rainy day” savings fund.

Hertel opposed most of the reductions to Snyder’s budget, “but what I’m saying is that if we’re actually going to find $542 million, we should be putting it towards something that actually does something for the people of Michigan. ... So putting the cuts that we’ve identified towards roads seems like the responsible thing to do.”

His amendment failed in a 18-19 vote after Republican leaders urged a no vote, citing the $1.2 billion roads package the Legislature and Snyder approved in late 2015 that began this year and will continue to be phased in through 2021.

“We’re on a path to improvement in our infrastructure,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, who voted against the proposal, which was rejected after state Sen. Mike Green switched from “yes” to “no.”

“Second thoughts, I guess,” Green, R-Mayville, said after session. “I mean I’d love to have another $500 million for the roads. I guess maybe that vote was kind of political.”

Seven other Republicans voted for the additional road funding, joining all 11 Democrats.

The 2015 road funding package amounts to the largest single state investment in transportation funding in at least 50 years, but the Michigan Department of Transportation projects road quality will continue to deteriorate, albeit at a slower pace.

“I think people are tired of hearing excuses” on roads, Hertel said. “As a Lions fan, I’m used to hearing this over and over again, ‘Just wait until next year.’ That’s what people are hearing from their senators every single day.”

The final Senate budget bills approved Thursday would eliminate a $20 million deposit Snyder proposed making into a statewide infrastructure fund following disasters like the Fraser sinkhole in Macomb County.

The Senate budget would also scrap a $25 million deposit into a drinking water fund that could be tapped in the case of emergencies like the Flint contamination crisis.

Those spending reductions are part of a broader Republican push to free up money legislative leaders have said could be used for tax cuts, infrastructure investments or reforms to the state’s teacher pension system.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, have both indicated they want to close the teacher pension system to new hires, providing them with 401(k)-style retirement plans instead, which could entail significant up-front costs.

Meekhof said Thursday he has had “very preliminary” discussions about teacher pension reforms with Snyder, who opposed a legislative plan last year.

As for infrastructure, “we’ve done a very good job with the roads package, and we’ll continue to consider other options to improve our roads and make them better,” he told reporters after the session.