Mich. lawmakers: No ‘rainy day’ funds for roads

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — As a cold mix of rain and snow filled potholes across Michigan on Thursday, legislators unanimously approved $175 million in new transportation spending but rejected a plan to fund additional repairs through a $275 million withdrawal from the state’s nearly $1 billion “rainy day” savings account.

The mid-year spending bill is designed to send extra money to local and state road agencies by the summer construction season. Democrats pushed for an even larger allocation, an effort that failed despite support from some majority Republican legislators.

“It’s raining in Michigan – literally at times raining concrete,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, who introduced an amendment to pull additional dollars from the rainy day fund. “Citizens are tired of excuses. The time to act is now for the people of the state who drive on these roads every day and who are tired of paying higher taxes and seeing no results.”

The amendment failed in 15-21 vote in the Senate, with support from six Republicans. The proposal sparked a series of fiery exchanges over road funding, including a 2015 law that included higher gas taxes and registration fees but won’t see the state phase in an annual general fund dedication until next year.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, blasted Democrats who “bloviate” over road funding but did not vote for the 2015 law that Gov. Rick Snyder called the largest investment of its kind in 50 years.

“I think it’s a bit disingenuous, and I’m a bit disappointed that this has become a partisan issue when you actually had the possibility to participate in a long-term funding process and vote yes,” Meekhof said.

Democrats, who had called the 2015 law a “sham” and predicted it would not do enough to fix the roads, argued that time has proven them right as they pushed for the additional $275 million withdrawal from the Budget Stabilization Fund.

MDOT recently awarded a $5 million contract to Cadillac Asphalt for emergency pothole patchwork along the hardest-hit stretches in Metro Detroit, including parts of Interstate 696 in Macomb County and southbound I-75 in Oakland County.

“This is more than a rainy day,” said Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren. “This is more than a blizzard. This is a catastrophic event that is hitting our state, that is impacting our industry, impacting our economy and endangering our public.”

Republican Sens. Pat Colbeck of Canton Township, Ken Horn of Frankenmuth, Mary Knollenberg of Troy, Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights and Dale Zorn of Ida Township voted for the rainy day fund amendment. State Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, voted against it but said Wednesday he hopes the idea becomes part of annual budget negotiations.

“In fact it is raining. I don’t disagree with that in the least,” Proos said in earlier committee debate. “While I’m not supporting the amendment at this time, I sure hope that this is part of the discussion in the ongoing budget process we have going forward.”

Senate Republicans also rejected a proposal from Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, to set aside $5 million to reimburse motorists for pothole damage.

The $175 million in road funding ultimately approved Thursday would send an extra $38.2 million to cities and villages, $68.4 million to county road commissions and $68.4 million to the state. The Michigan Department of Transportation could use up to $15 million of its funding for new next-generation connected vehicle projects, hydrogen fueling stations and ride-sharing pilot projects for seniors and residents with disabilities.

The supplemental spending bill includes $1 million for Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal. Another $2.4 million in general fund dollars would go to the state police for response efforts to recent flooding and for equipping more officers with Narcan nasal spray for use in opioid overdose cases.

The state House approved the final plan later Thursday, sending it to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for approval.

“Republicans are taking this road situation very seriously,” said House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, accusing Democrats of playing politics.

The local road funding dollars would be distributed among all 83 Michigan counties and 533 cities and villages based on an existing formula that considers population, pavement miles and other factors.

Among the state’s largest cities, Detroit would receive an extra $5.8 million this year under the bill. Grand Rapids would receive $1.47 million, Warren $924,337 and Sterling Heights $810,884. Oakland County would get an additional $7 million, Wayne County $6.48 million and Macomb $4.48 million.

Rocca blasted the road funding formula, calling it “nothing less than institutionalized theft.” The formula sends too many dollars to areas of the state where it is not needed as badly as his district in Macomb County, he argued.

“We drive on our roads and use them until the end of their actual service life and then several years afterward,” Rocca said. “The gaps between the pavement seams on Mound Road and other roads in my district are chasms.”

Snyder defended the 2015 road funding law Wednesday, noting the state is just beginning to phase in general fund dollars mandated by the road funding measure.

The additional $175 million in current year transportation funding will “accelerate” that process, Snyder said. “Is it going to fix every pothole in Michigan? No, but we’re making major steps forward.”

Motorists began paying higher gas taxes and registration fees last year, largely replacing general fund dollars the state had been voluntarily advocating prior to the law, which will require $150 million next year and $600 million a year by 2021.

“We did some things to deal with long-term issues in terms of funding for our roads,” the governor said. “I just wish we didn’t have the freeze-thaw cycle we did this year. This has been a particularly tough year.”