Michigan House speaker: 'Common ground' found on regional transit

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Macomb County could definitively opt out of a Metro Detroit regional transit effort under a bill introduced Tuesday in the Michigan House and touted by the chamber's top lawmaker.

As state officeholders continue to seek a way to boost transit in Southeast Michigan, House Speaker Lee Chatfield labeled the new bill, which amends a 2012 law establishing the Regional Transit Authority, "common ground." It came three months after another transit proposal was unveiled by local government leaders in Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield R-Levering

"My top priority while working on this issue has been to restrict the RTA to protect Michigan’s hard-working taxpayers and give local residents more control over any future tax increases,” Chatfield, R-Levering, said in a statement. “This plan does both, and that is why we are moving forward with this new proposal.”

The bill, introduced by Rep. Diana Farrington, R-Utica, allows the creation of a "service area" within the four-county Regional Transit Authority and lets a county choose not to participate in the "service area" if its board of commissioners and county executive approve a resolution opting out.

A tax assessment for transportation services could be levied within the service area if it were approved by a majority of the voters who reside in that area, according to a press release by Farrington.

Farrington's bill also caps assessments levied under the law to no more than 3 mills upon each dollar of taxable value of property within the service area of the public transit region at any time.

"I heard from my constituents, from my district, and we needed to find a fair, well-balanced solution," Farrington said. "And I think this is a well-balanced solution."

The new bill could make it easier for some Republicans to support the transit effort because it focuses on restrictions to the current Regional Transit Authority, unlike a previous proposal that would have revised a separate state law.

In November, Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, introduced a bill that would have effectively allowed for a regional transit agreement between Detroit and Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, leaving out Macomb County, where county leaders have opposed past regional transit pushes.

That proposal, backed by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Oakland County Executive David Coulter, aimed to revise the Michigan Municipal Partnership Act to make it a tool that governments could use to negotiate a regional plan. It would have allowed local governments participating in a “joint endeavor” to levy a property tax.

The bill advanced out of committees to the full House on Dec. 10 but has since stalled.

The new proposal, which is focused on the Regional Transit Authority law, seeks to ensure Macomb County lawmakers that portions of their county wouldn't somehow be included in the new transit effort by giving the county the ability to definitively opt out.

Farrington said she wouldn't have voted for Sheppard's bill but is sponsoring the new proposal. Chatfield called it the "best plan to address nearly everyone’s concerns and give the power back to the people.”

“We listened to a lot of meaningful feedback from concerned taxpayers, residents looking for new options, job creators worried about filling open positions, small government advocates and local officials from all over the state on both sides of the issue," Chatfield said.

The new proposal, which supporters labeled a "compromise," hasn't satisfied all critics of the transit push.

Oakland County State Rep. John Reilly, R-Lake Orion, said the fact the previous bill stalled showed there is a "serious problem with trying to pass this type of property tax increase."

"To revert back to this, this looks like another property tax increase," Reilly said.

House leadership has referred the new bill to the Government Operations Committee, where a vote is expected in the coming days.

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Shirkey hasn’t had a chance to look at the details of the new proposal but it's an issue he’s interested in.

In 2016, a regional 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax increase ballot measure for the system was defeated — losing overwhelmingly in Macomb and by 1,100 votes in Oakland, while Wayne and Washtenaw county voters approved it.

An effort to put a new $5.4 billion, 1.5-mill regional tax hike proposal on the 2018 ballot flopped after opposition from then-Oakland County Executive Patterson and Macomb County Executive Hackel.


Staff Writer Mike Martindale contributed