Whitmer wants ‘contingency plan’ to avoid shutdown over roads

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she’d be willing to sign a continuing budget resolution to avoid a government shutdown if she and Republican leaders are unable to finalize a long-term road funding plan by Oct. 1.

The East Lansing Democrat has said she will not sign a new state budget without a “real” plan to “fix the damn roads.” But the GOP-led Legislature has balked at her plan for a 45-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike and not yet unveiled a promised alternative.

Whitmer on Monday continued to question why Republican lawmakers remain on summer recess despite the looming budget deadline but told reporters she thinks all sides want to avoid the state’s first government shutdown since 2007 and 2009.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer inspects a deteriorating bridge in Lansing on Aug. 12, 2019.

“If we’ve got good-faith negotiations, and hiccups happen, I think we’ve got to have a back-up plan,” Whitmer told reporters Monday. “And my understanding from both the leaders is they’re desperate to avoid any kind of shutdown too.”

A continuing resolution would allow state agencies and programs to continue regular operations beyond the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year and allow for more time to finalize a full budget. 

Whitmer met Friday with legislative leaders, including House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake. But the Republicans did not lay out their long-awaited roads plan or any concrete proposals, she said.

“I’ve read pieces of things that are being debated amongst themselves,” Whitmer said. “But at the end of the day, they’re going to need Democratic votes in the House, the Senate and my signature to have a budget done, and that’s why we’ve got to get serious about negotiating.”

As The Detroit News reported last week, GOP leaders appear close to finalizing their own long-term roads plan but have not yet announced any public details.

A Shirkey spokeswoman on Monday raised the possibility of a cooperative announcement with Whitmer.

"We have no specific timeline for announcing a roads plan, but when we do, the majority leader looks forward to the governor joining us in announcing the details," said Amber McCann.

Republicans want to eliminate the state's sales tax on fuel purchases to ensure all money paid at the pump goes to roads, and they've debated a teacher pension debt swap proposal that would protect school funding and free up nearly $1 billion annually to fix the state’s crumbling roads.

But Whitmer and the Michigan Education Association union have already criticized the pension idea, and it remains unclear if Republicans could convince Democrats to strike a deal if it is a central component of their road funding plan.

Under the West Michigan Policy Forum proposal, the state would issue a 30-year pension obligation bond to borrow $10 billion that would be pumped into the Michigan Public Schools Employees Retirement System.

The idea hinges on what critics call a risky assumption — that the pension system would invest the $10 billion and secure large enough returns to cover the cost of bond interest payments and pay down any remaining pension debt, eliminating the need for yearly state appropriations.

Lawmakers have also discussed the possibility of expanding the state’s existing 6% sales tax by applying it to transportation services, which could include ride shares with companies like Uber or Lyft.

Whitmer said Monday she anticipates Republicans will have something "more concrete to talk about" in "the next week or so.”

The Republican-led House and Senate are expected to return from summer recess the last week of August.

Chatfield spokesman Gideon D’Assandro confirmed leaders met last week to discuss roads and said “progress is being made.”

“That work continues,” he said.

While a continuing budget resolution could serve as a “contingency plan” to give more time for negotiations, Whitmer said she stressed the urgency of the matter in her Friday meeting with GOP leaders.

“We’re getting towards the end of this fiscal year,” she said. “We’re a month and a half into the calendar year for schools, and it’s time for us to get a real plan together and get it passed and to my desk.

“Every day we get closer to the end of the fiscal year, we’re going to blame weeks like the last seven that they’ve not been showing up in town to do the hard work.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tests the integrity of a Lansing bridge on Aug. 12, 2019.

Whitmer has called for $2.5 billion a year in new road and bridge repair funding and continued her sales pitch Monday after inspecting a deteriorating bridge in Lansing’s REO Town neighborhood.

Officials were forced to reduce truck weight limits on the Elm Street bridge, which spans the Red Cedar River and is a conduit to a local General Motors Co. plant, because of cracks, leaching crumbling concrete and broken, exposed “strand” roping.

“This is one of our major ways to cross the river,” Mayor Andy Schor told reporters. “If you can’t cross here, people are not getting to REO Town, across town.”

The bridge is slated to be reconstructed by 2022, but officials say demand far outweighs funding. It’s the only one of Lansing’s five “critical” needs bridges that won funding this year through a Local Bridge Program.

Local governments in the mid-Michigan region requested a combined $44 million in bridge funding from the state but qualified for $8 million, said Michigan Department of Transportation Deputy Bridge Engineer Rebecca Curtis.

Statewide, local governments applied for between $250 million and $300 million in bridge funding but the department was only able to provide roughly $48 million, including about $14 million in federal dollars, Curtis said.

Michigan has 53 other bridges that are closed because of poor condition and is reporting about “one critical finding” to the federal government every two weeks, she said.

“I think it’s important to know how serious this infrastructure crisis is,” Whitmer told reporters after inspecting the Lansing bridge with a hard hat and testing hammer. “We’re closing down bridges. We are weight-restricting bridges like this one here.”