Push road bill over the top

The Detroit News

The best hope for bringing Michigan’s network of roads and highways into a condition worthy of a modern, industrial state is to get a funding bill passed during the next three weeks of the Legislature’s lame duck session.

After that, the new, more conservative lawmakers who will be seated in January seem unlikely to take up a transportation bill that will require a substantial tax hike.

There’s reason for optimism that the lame duck session will produce a road funding bill. But a lot of work remains to be done, and lawmakers must be willing to set aside hard-line positions and compromise toward an agreement.

The most positive sign is both the Senate and House are pursuing bills that would deliver more money for roads.

Senators have already passed a bill that would raise more than $1 billion a year by scrapping the current retail taxes on fuel and switching to a wholesale tax, with a higher rate.

That bill, supported by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville and Gov. Rick Snyder, seems to be the quickest and cleanest avenue for raising road funds.

But there’s not much enthusiasm for it in the House, where Speaker Jase Bolger has his own plan. Bolger would take the 6 percent sales tax on fuel and use it entirely for road work. Currently, the money goes to education and revenue sharing for municipalities.

It has the most public appeal — motorists correctly note that they pay among the highest taxes on fuel in the nation, but the money doesn’t all go for roads. Bolger would replace the funds for schools and revenue sharing with growth in overall sales tax collections.

That’s a risky approach. There’s no guarantee that sales tax revenue will rise at the 3 percent annual rate necessary to hold schools and communities harmless.

There will be strong opposition from the powerful school lobby, which will want a more certain replacement strategy. Schools and local governments are already hard pressed; risking up to a $1 billion hit to their funding won’t be palatable.

The Richardville/Snyder plan also has drawbacks. The biggest concern is that even with the change in the way taxes are levied, revenues will gradually fall over time as motorists use less fuel due to better mileage performance of newer vehicles.

A better solution might be to sharply raise vehicle registration fees, which would provide a more predictable and stable source of funding. But that idea has completely fallen off the table in the face of public opposition.

Nobody underestimates the difficulty for lawmakers in voting for a major tax hike of any kind. Despite the abysmal condition of roads, motorists remain unconvinced that more money is needed, believing instead existing funds are improperly used.

So there’s a marketing job still to be done, and little time to do it.

But the fact that the lame duck Legislature is open to passing a transportation bill is encouraging. The curtain should not fall on this legislative session without getting it done.