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Finley: Chamber ready to bust Michigan road block

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Michigan's politically powerful state Chamber of Commerce is ready to throw a stick of dynamite into the logjam over road funding.

The chamber, which leans Republican, is frustrated — actually, furious — that the GOP-controlled Legislature is unable to pass a plan for fixing the roads and keeping them fixed.

"We're tired of lame excuses from lawmakers who won't do their jobs," says Rich Studley, executive director of the statewide business group.

So the chamber board has OK'd a plan to begin preparing a citizen's initiative that would force lawmakers to either pass a road funding bill or place it on the ballot for voters to decide.

If the Legislature refuses to come up with a road funding fix, the Michigan Chamber will step in.

Gov. Rick Snyder says he's hopeful the Legislature will approve a comprehensive transportation bill in the lame duck session that follows the Nov. 4 elections. But Studley thinks the chances of lame duck passage are slim.

"We've been through this cycle for 10 years, through two governors and four legislatures," he says. "We're beginning to wonder if this is one of those issues that is too complex and politically difficult for a term-limited Legislature to pass."

Studley says a candidate's willingness to acknowledge more road money is needed weighed heavily in the chamber's endorsement decisions in House and Senate races.

Noting the fuel tax was last raised in 1997, he labeled as "foolish" those lawmakers who have taken a "no new taxes" pledge and are applying it to transportation funding.

The chamber's petition drive would most likely call for dedicating the state's six percent sales tax on fuel exclusively to roads. Currently, the sales tax on fuel goes into the general fund and is used for education and other spending.

Diverting all of the money to roads would blow a hole in the budget that lawmakers would have to figure out how to fill. Studley is hoping the fear of taking on that challenge will motivate legislators to come up with their own solution.

He got the idea from a union front group that manipulated lawmakers into raising the minimum wage by threatening a citizens initiative campaign.

"I watched in amazement as a Republican Legislature raised the minimum wage, but failed to fix the roads," he says. "So we decided to go on the offensive."

Studley agrees with Snyder that the state needs $1 billion or more annually in additional road revenue — capturing the sales tax would raise only half that. He says his organization, normally adverse to tax hikes, would support new taxes to pay for road repairs.

The chamber sees the deteriorating highways as a competitive disadvantage in attracting jobs and investment. Vehicles damaged by pot-holed roads also add to the cost of doing business here.

The chamber will give lawmakers a chance to get it right during lame duck. But it is prepared to meet in January to authorize the petition drive if they don't. If the Legislature rejects the citizen's initiative, the proposal would automatically go on the ballot in November of 2016.

"If they don't do their jobs, we will," Studley says.