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Panel OKs regional transit bill over northern Oakland County objections

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Regional transit legislation that would cap the taxes that could be levied for public transit and allow Macomb County to opt out advanced Thursday to the full House after a contentious meeting. 

The bill would amend a 2012 law establishing the Regional Transit Authority among Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties to allow for the creation of a “service area” from which a county could opt out by a vote of the board of commissioners and the county executive. 

In this Nov. 8, 2018 file photo, Michigan House Democratic Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills talks to reporters at the Michigan Capitol.

County boards remaining in the service area could place a tax up to 3 mills on the ballot in an effort to secure a majority vote in favor of a regional transit tax. 

In a 4-0 vote Thursday, the House Government Operations Committee referred the bill to the House floor. 

House Democratic Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills and Republican Reps. Jason Sheppard of Temperance, Triston Cole of Mancelona and Jim Lilly of Park Township voted in favor of the legislation. Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, passed.

“This is the first step,” Greig said. “Without this first step, which is actually even more flexible than what we have right now for transit options, we may not even get to that end result.”

Nearly a dozen Oakland County elected officials opposed the plan Thursday, arguing that communities in northern Oakland County would be forced to pay for the program without any real benefit. 

Oakland County’s majority Democratic board and executive have supported a regional transit tax. But Macomb County, which made up a large portion of the no vote for a similar proposal in 2016, is expected to opt out of the “service area,” leaving northern Oakland residents to oppose the transit plan on their own. 

“How is it fair that voters be constantly subjected to having to organize and mobilize to defeat tax hikes after already winning this four years ago?” said Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township. 

“Public transportation is one of the least effective ways to spend public money,” Reilly said. “Waste and abuse are the rule, not the exception.”

Oakland County leaders urged lawmakers to demand the counties produce a proposed transit plan before the bill advances. 

Rep. John Reilly, 46th District of Michigan.

“Why vote on this without a plan?” Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett asked legislators. “We would love to see a plan. Show us a plan; maybe we could be advocates for this.”

An Oakland County spokesman told The Detroit News Thursday there is no draft plan for how the tax would be used or even how much of a tax would be proposed.

"We have conducted analysis of previous plans as well as collected data on county transit needs, but none of that information has been transformed into a plan," said Bill Mullan, a spokesman for Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter.

But recent public records request communications between Washtenaw County and state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, indicate a draft plan has been circulating.

Johnson, who has advocated for an opt-out option for individual municipalities, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request Feb. 13 seeking the draft regional transit plan from Washtenaw County and later sent similar requests to the city of Detroit, the Regional Transit Authority and Oakland County. 

Detroit and Oakland County extended the time to respond, but Washtenaw County denied the request less than week after receiving it, arguing that the document was exempt because “the record is clearly marked as ‘working draft/draft.'”

Johnson is appealing the denial.

Washtenaw County Administrator Gregory Dill said the county has a two-page "working document" with a regional map and discussion topics from a meeting held with representatives of Wayne and Oakland counties, but he said he would not deem it a "plan."

Sheppard, chairman for the House Government Operations Committee, said after Thursday’s meeting that he was not aware of an existing plan and didn’t expect the counties to show the Legislature a plan before the vote. 

Michigan State Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance

“I don’t think its really a legislative matter,” Sheppard said. “All that we’re doing is creating a mechanism for them to be able to do what they want to do. The plan would have to be presented to the voters.”

Sheppard said the legislation, introduced earlier this week, was fast-tracked through committee approval because of negotiations over the past three months.

"This bill is a culmination of that and we want to make sure we can get this done and wrapped up as soon as we can so that way the communities that are involved in this can then move forward," Sheppard said.