Opinion: Tax the rich to pay for roads, education

Ron Bieber
Black Swamp Steel, Inc. 'rod busters' Jose Manuel Magana, foreground, of River Rouge, and Petro Gutierrez, of Toledo, use handheld machines to tie reinforcing rods together so they stay in place when concrete is poured to create steel-reinforced concrete.

Last month, I wrote to dispel the absurd claim being made by some lawmakers that Michigan does not have the workforce needed to fix the roads if they did raise the needed revenue. I ended that column with a question: “Michigan skilled construction workers are ready to work. Are lawmakers ready to lead?” In the month that has passed, the answer to that question appears to be “no.”

We are now rapidly approaching the end-of-the-month deadline for the Legislature to pass a budget and have it signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. How close lawmakers have allowed themselves to come to the deadline seems even more absurd when you consider they recessed for nearly the entire summer.

While the Republican leadership has tried to justify this summer recess by saying they have been working on the budget while their members were on break, the simple fact remains that they cannot strike a deal without the consensus of their caucuses. And they cannot reach consensus when their members are not in town.

To make matters worse, some aspects of the budget are already overdue. The school year has started. Schedules have been set. Classrooms have been assigned. But the Legislature has not passed an education budget yet.

While schools do not know what their budgets will ultimately be, they do not have the option of recessing the start of school until the legislature gets their act together.

Adding to the uncertainty, many of the alternative road funding “solutions” floated by Republican leadership could jeopardize revenue for schools or gamble away retirement plans for educators.

In the interest of avoiding a government shutdown which would lay off thousands of workers and disrupt services for millions of residents, Whitmer has agreed to work with the Legislature to pass a budget.

But they are doing so without a plan to fix the roads.

As former Republican State Senate Leader Ken Sikkema noted, it is the Republicans who have tied the roads to the budget when they started to use general fund dollars to supplement road funding. As it stands now, the two issues cannot be separated. Because of this, there will still be uncertainty as shifts in funding may need to be made in the future to accommodate any agreement made after a budget deal is reached this month.

While the Republican leadership is under no obligation to support Whitmer's proposal, they do have an obligation to offer a viable alternative.

We've known about the road funding issue for at least a decade now. The need for more revenue for the roads is something business interests and labor agree on. Studies conducted by Democrats and Republicans alike have shown the need for billions of dollars in new funding. And the costs only continue to climb the longer we delay action.

Republican legislative leadership has manufactured a crisis by recessing for the summer months and using the pending budget deadline as an excuse to once again delay addressing our infrastructure. The time has come for them to put forth a budget and a plan, one that provides adequate funding without putting other budget priorities at risk.

Perhaps with the extended deadline, they'll consider Senate Joint Resolution D sponsored by Sen. Jeff Irwin or House Joint Resolution G sponsored by Rep. Rebekah Warren and give the voters the opportunity to support a graduated income tax so the wealthy can pay their fair share to fix the roads and fund our schools.

Maybe one day soon they will finally prove they are ready to lead.

Ron Bieber is president of Michigan AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.