Whitmer warns against 'phony solutions' for roads fix
Lansing — Michigan House Republicans opposed to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal for a 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase are expected to propose an alternative road funding plan next month.
“Nothing is off the table,” said state Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, who added he personally supports “discussion of additional revenue” and did not slam the door on debate over some type of a smaller tax or fee increase.
“I just think you’re going to get a good, varied discussion of the budget,” Filler said of the upcoming GOP plan, which he expects will be made public in two to three weeks. “And it’s not going to have a 45-cent (gas) tax increase.”
Filler spoke with reporters Monday morning after a Whitmer budget presentation in DeWitt, where the governor touted her “road to opportunity” plan and explained the rationale behind her controversial proposal to fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
Michigan spends less on road per capita than most other states, and its transportation infrastructure ranks among the worst in the country, she said, arguing that failure to invest now means the price tag will only grow as road continue to deteriorate.
“No one wants to raise the gas tax, but I’m looking at the crisis we’re facing as a state, and I’m tired of half-measures and phony solutions,” Whitmer said, noting her gas tax proposal would rely on a “user fee” to raise $2.5 billion a year a year in new revenue.
Local officials pressed Whitmer on the gas tax plan and its potential to disproportionately affect low-income residents. She acknowledged it is a “regressive tax” but noted her companion plan to double the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor.
“If somebody has an alternative that fixes the problem, I’m all ears,” Whitmer told reporters after the event, disputing a suggestion her plan is dead in the water.
“We have a $2.5 billion problem when it comes to infrastructure. We’re filling potholes by stealing money from the General Fund and from the School Aid Fund, and it’s wrong. It’s put us in a position where we’re not educating our kids well.”
Whitmer’s proposal for a 171 percent increase in the existing 26.3-cents-per-gallon tax has landed with a thud in Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature, where GOP leaders in both chambers have made clear they will not support such a steep gas tax hike.
While House Republicans are preparing an alternative as part of the budget process, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, is hoping to separate the road funding debate from the budget.
“He does not subscribe to the governor’s plan that is dependent upon a single vote of revenue to implement the entire budget plan,” said Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann. “We obviously acknowledge the fiscal impact of any road plan that we might do, but the majority leader is not willing to hold up progress on the budget on any particular policy item.”
Whitmer has touted her $60.2 billion executive budget proposal as a way to solve several state problems with a single vote. It would free up General Fund money from a 2015 road funding law to pay for university operations, leaving more School Aid Fund dollars for K-12 classrooms.
The governor acknowledged that voting for a gas tax increase could be difficult for legislators expected to see re-election in coming years but promised to “help” them and encouraged others to do the same.
As a legislator, the worst vote you can take is one that doesn’t actually fix the problem,” said Whitmer, a former lawmaker. “It’s actually worse to take 10 votes to cobble together a solution that still doesn’t solve the problem.”
With lawmakers on spring recess for two weeks, Whitmer is continuing to sell her gas tax plan at events across the state while touting a growing “coalition” of support.
The Detroit Regional Chamber and the Michigan Municipal League last week joined the Michigan Townships Association by backing Whitmer’s call for $2.5 billion in new revenue to help fix state and local roads.
Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah called the gas tax or other user fees “the preferred source” for that funding and said the business group “looks forward to working with the governor and the Legislature to finalize the mechanism and timing to achieve this goal.”
Whitmer noted leaders in other states, including Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, are proposing gas tax increases to fund road repairs.
But DeWine’s 18-cent hike plan has also been met with resistance in his state’s GOP-led Legislature. The Senate last week approved a 6-cent increase after the House had approved a 10.7-cent hike, both well below the Ohio governor’s original ask.
Shirkey has acknowledged the likely need for new revenue in Michigan, but House and Senate Republicans have both suggested a 2015 road funding plan that will eventually total $1.2 billion a year should count toward the $2.5 billion need.
Experts project Michigan road conditions will continue to deteriorate despite the 2015 law.
But Whitmer “shot for the moon” with her gas tax proposal, Filler said.
“We’re going to put forward something responsible, and we don’t think 45 cents on top of what we already pay is responsible,” he said.
The House plan “won’t go to war with PA 51,” he added, referencing Whitmer’s plan to put additional gas tax revenue through a new funding formula that would prioritize spending on high-trafficked roads with economic importance.
Local officials fear the revised formula could direct more money to state highways than community streets. Critics of the existing funding formula say it favors rural communities with long roads but fewer drivers.
Whitmer declined to say how willing she is to negotiate on her original proposal.
“As I’ve said all along, if someone has an alternative plan to get to $2.5 billion, I’m all ears,” she said. “Show me the plan. If you don’t have one, let’s get serious about talking about this one, because it’s real.”