Michigan GOP keeps roads plan under wraps

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Senate Republicans are no longer planning to publicly unveil their long-term road funding plan and will instead seek to negotiate a deal in private with House GOP leadership and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Wednesday he hopes to make a “joint announcement” with Whitmer in the next two weeks if they are able to agree on a “general direction” for fixing the state’s crumbling roads.

GOP leaders vowed to develop an alternative to Whitmer's roads proposal and have worked on ideas over the summer.

“I believe she’s honestly evaluating many of the alternatives that we placed on the table,” Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a radio interview on WJR AM-760, breaking his summer recess silence over the roads and budget impasse.

Whitmer campaigned on a pledge to “fix the damn roads” but Republican lawmakers balked at her March proposal to hike fuel taxes by 45 cents per gallon, which would generate $2.5 billion annually and give Michigan the highest rate in the nation.

The governor's plan remains the only one on the table, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Thursday. "Conversations are happening," she acknowledged, but there have not been "negotiations" because "Republicans have not put forth a plan."

GOP leaders vowed to develop an alternative to Whitmer's roads proposal and have worked on ideas over the summer. But they have not made any details public beyond a pledge to first identify other budget dollars that could be prioritized for infrastructure.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey

“I think we’re probably going to be having some new revenue, but it’s not going to be anywhere close to what was proposed in my governor’s first budget proposal,” Shirkey said, reiterating that Republicans will not back a 45-cent gas tax hike.

It's not clear whether Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, fully agree on the need for new revenue, which could include a form of smaller tax increase.

“We may be a little different on that front,” Shirkey acknowledged. “I believe we do need some new revenue, and Speaker Chatfield is pressing hard — appropriately pressing hard — to see if we can’t test ourselves hard to get there without it.”

Shirkey, through a spokeswoman, declined a request for an interview with The Detroit News.

Chatfield spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said the speaker continues to believe “every option’s got to be on the table” but noted House Republicans have made it a priority to ensure “existing funds are being used wisely by the government first before asking Michigan families to pay more.”

D’Assandro was less bullish on the prospect of an imminent deal with Whitmer, saying there is “no firm kind of logistical rollout planned or anything like that.”

“Right now, they’re working with the governor and they’re focused on actually working through the various options that they have.”

Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, discusses Michigan's future at the annual Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce's Mackinac Policy Conference.

As The News previously reported, Republicans are considering a teacher pension debt swap plan that could free up nearly $1 billion a year for roads but allow the lawmakers to exempt fuel purchases from the state’s 6% sales tax without cutting school funding.

Whitmer has already called the 30-year, $10 billion pension obligation bonding idea a “non-starter” and the Michigan Education Association has panned what it calls a “pensions for pothole” scheme.

Other ideas floating around Lansing include a possible sales tax on transportation services, potentially applying to ride share companies like Uber and Lyft, and new options for local governments to generate their own additional revenue for their road repairs.

Whitmer on Monday questioned why the Republican-led Legislature remains on summer recess despite the need to send her a budget she'd be willing to sign by Oct. 1 to avoid the state’s first government shutdown since 2009.

The governor, who has been in the Upper Peninsula since Tuesday, met with Shirkey and Chatfield last week Friday but said they did not propose a concrete roads plan.

“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.”

The governor offered no hint of a joint roads announcement or deal but did predict Republicans will have something "more concrete to talk about" in "the next week or so.”

Whitmer also said for the first time that she would be willing to sign a temporary continuation budget to avoid a shutdown if she and GOP leaders are negotiating a road funding plan by the end of September.

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

Shirkey pledged “there will be no government shutdown,” suggesting the House and Senate will send Whitmer a budget by the end of the fiscal year that “will have appropriate spending, and frankly I think pretty aggressive spending for roads.”

“But it will not include a 45-cent gas tax increase,” he said.

Shirkey said Republican leaders have been keeping Whitmer “up to date” throughout the summer and have gone “through some of the details” with her, identifying “areas where we may agree and where we may have some work yet to do.”

He declined to discuss details of his conversations with Whitmer and Chatfield, saying he does not want to “divulge the confidence that the three of us have held.”

“But I’m encouraged — let’s put it that way — that we will have a joint announcement within a couple weeks on a general direction, and then we’ll turn our teams loose to put the details in.”

Finishing the roads plan and budget on time may require a “furious” workload in September, Shirkey added. “But it’s okay.”