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Poll: Michigan voters say state has enough money to fix roads

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan's likely voters ranked roads and bridges as one of the biggest issues facing the state, but a majority said state leaders already have enough money to fix the crumbling infrastructure, according to a new poll. 

Nearly half of those polled in the Jan. 14-18 survey said they would be more likely to support an increase to road revenue if the administration of that money was entrusted to local governments rather than state government, according to the poll of 600 likely voters by Glengariff Group for the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

Road construction crews use heavy equipment to pour and level concrete along I696 at Thomas Street in Warren on October 12, 2018.

“Any kind of statewide legislative action (on roads) would have to be very clear that localities, counties are going to get the money,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The poll was released ahead of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s second State of the State address Wednesday, when the governor is expected to reiterate her campaign commitment to “fix the damn roads.”

The first-term governor's proposal last year to increase the 26.3-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 45 cents was opposed by GOP legislative leaders and the ensuing debate eventually led to a breakdown in budget negotiations with Republicans.  

When the Republican-controlled Legislature sent the governor a budget that shifted existing funds from other departments for a one-time $375 million payment toward roads, the governor made 147 line item vetoes, slashing $947 million from the state budget and transferring another $625 million within departments.

Earlier this month, nearly 30% of Michigan voters polled ranked roads and bridges as the most important issue facing the nation, followed by 18% concerned about jobs and the economy, 7% education and 6% water and sewer infrastructure. 

More than 86% said Michigan roads have gotten worse or stayed the same in recent years.

Despite the deteriorating road conditions, 53% said there is enough money in the state budget currently to fix roads and bridges. Democratic voters appeared split on the question, but independents and Republicans had large majorities who said existing state dollars were enough to repair roads and bridges. 

The polling reflects the continued inability of state leaders to make a “clear and concise” argument regarding the need for new road revenue, said Richard Czuba, founder of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

“State leaders on both sides of the aisle are losing the PR campaign with voters in failing to explain why there is not enough money,” he said. 

Road funding and repair proposals under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder and Whitmer have primarily included “state-driven solutions,” which is perhaps why they’ve led to less than stellar results, Baruah said. 

“Clearly, the trust in state government to do this is shaky,” he said. 

Of the 600 individuals polled, nearly 30% said their city or township would be best trusted to spend any new road revenue. Another 30% trusted county government and another 23% trusted state government. 

More than 47% of those polled said they would be more likely to support an increase in a road revenue if they knew their local government would be handling the money. A "revenue increase" is often a euphemism for a tax hike around the Michigan Capitol.

“In all of the research I’ve done, the closer the money is to the voters, the greater the trust they have in its execution,” Czuba said. 

Michigan road funding is distributed using a formula in Public Act 51, designating 39% of revenue to the state for roads maintained by the Michigan Department of Transportation, 39% to counties for county roads and 21.8% to cities and villages for their systems.

On other issues, the survey found voter support by 74% to 88% majorities for debt-free community college for adults attempting to re-enter the work force, extending the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to apply to gay individuals and  requiring drivers use hands-free devices for phone calls. 

“They’re kind of the low-hanging policy fruit here,” Czuba said. 

By 74-22%, voters supported debt-free community college programs for adults, a program similar to what Whitmer championed during her last State of the State address. 

Voters also supported a proposal requiring drivers to use hands-free cal devices while driving, 88% to 9%.

On prohibiting discrimination in employment or housing for the LGBT community, voters supported extending the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act 77% to 16%. A group earlier this month launched a campaign to initiate legislation that would make the change.