Lame-duck session ends in cowardice, road failure

The Detroit News

The road funding bill patched together by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder Thursday represents an abandonment of responsibility and leadership. Punting the tough policymaking of fixing Michigan's infrastructure to the voters is not what lawmakers and the governor were sent to Lansing to do.

The compromise that will put a 1 cent sales tax increase proposal on the ballot in May is as poor a solution as the Legislature could have concocted.

Rather than a clean, legislative fix that would have raised fuel taxes and allowed the task of rebuilding Michigan's highways to begin with the spring construction season, lawmakers are instead betting that voters will agree to a massive tax hike and shift that will raise funds to be spent not only for roads, but a variety of other purposes as well.

And if voters reject the scheme, the state and its motorists are back to square one, with no additional road funds and even less hope for finding an answer.

Snyder is convinced that the horrible condition of Michigan's roads and the wear and tear they take on vehicles is enough to convince voters to support a higher tax. The May vote will come at the worst of the pothole season, and in a low turn-out election.

But one reason the Legislature couldn't muster the courage to pass a legislative solution is that residents are skeptical more money is needed. There's strong public sentiment that Michigan already has enough funds for road repairs, but spends it poorly. Backers of more revenue for roads have done little to address that perception, or concerns that high truck weights and shoddy construction standards are to blame for pavement breakdowns.

They'll have to make that case between now and May.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are spending the final hours of the lame-duck session passing bills related to the roads proposal. Those include shifting from a penny per gallon retail fuel tax to a wholesale tax and stripping the 6 percent sales tax from fuel sales.

Those are necessary measures, with or without the ballot proposal, but they all die if voters say no to the sales tax hike in May.

If lawmakers didn't want to make the decision themselves, a better approach would have been to pass a bill raising the fuel tax and allowing voters to decide whether they approve of that approach or a general sales tax increase.

That would have assured the roads get fixed either way. Under the plan that passed, if voters reject the ballot measure, there will be no additional highway funds and Michigan's roadways will continue to disintegrate.

To their credit, that idea of passing an alternative bill was pitched by Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and House Minority Leader Tim Greimel. But they were shot down by House Republicans, who under the leadership of Speaker Jase Bolger, wanted no part of a tax increase that carried their stamp. They bear most of the blame for the impasse.

What came out of the Legislature is not what the governor or Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville wanted. In the end, they accepted the deal believing it was better than no plan at all. That's not so certain. Because along with road funding, the proposal became somewhat of a Christmas Tree bill, fully restoring the earned income tax credit, raising dollars for eduction and other giveaways aimed at winning Democratic votes but have nothing to do with fixing highways.

The supporting legislation was being written in a flurry, without due deliberation, setting up a Nancy Pelosi/health care law scenario in which lawmakers were being asked to pass the bills so they could find out what was in them.

What happened this week in Lansing was pure cowardice. No one should pretend Michigan is any closer to solving its roads crisis than it was before the bargaining began. Failure will be the legacy of this legislative session.