Editorial: Prop 1 fails, time for Plan B

The Detroit News

Backers of Proposal 1 to fix Michigan’s dangerous roads and bridges contended throughout the campaign there was no Plan B for finding the necessary money. Tuesday’s solid defeat of the measure means they have to come up with one, and in a hurry.

The first step in developing a new roads plan is for Gov. Rick Snyder and lawmakers to commit to getting it done through the legislative process.

Many of those who were opposed to Prop 1 expressed resentment the Legislature punted the issue to voters in the first place. The solution should have come out of last fall’s lame duck session, but a lack of strong legislative leadership and the cowardice of lawmakers made that impossible.

Lansing can’t fail again. Michigan already will lose most of the current construction session no matter what happens next. Meanwhile, the roads and bridges are only getting more deadly.

Lawmakers, who hope to recess for July and August should stay in the Capitol until they’ve agreed on a plan. That means working five days a week, or more.

Whatever is proposed should be part of the budget process. It should not be shunted to a summertime study group as a delaying tactic.

Snyder must play hardball on this. He should refuse to sign any budget bills until the road funding solution is in place. None of these “full-time” lawmakers should be excused to the beaches or golf courses until they get their work done.

The governor must also see the election at least in part as a report card on his management. Another leading reason voters rejected Prop 1 is a mistrust in state stewardship of the money.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has had too many stumbles, from its mismanagement of bridge inspections to a failure to enforce truck weights to the very expensive decision to lease rail cars it can’t currently use.

Reorganizing leadership of the department, and perhaps even the make-up of the Michigan Transportation Commission, might send a good faith message to citizens that the governor hears their concerns.

The options for raising funds are narrower than they were before Prop 1’s decisive defeat. Some want to take another whack at a sales tax hike, this time with a clean bill that devotes the entire one-penny increase to roads.

While voters in pre-election polling expressed support for raising the sales tax to fund road work — it was this complex, larded up proposal they disliked — realistically, Michigan voters have never agreed to raise a statewide tax without an offsetting reduction in another tax. Going to the ballot again for any road funding plan is pointless.

The Legislature can and should turn to a hike in fuel taxes and registration fees to raise the bulk of the $1.2 billion needed annually to make Michigan’s roads safe. That should have been the solution in December, and it remains the optimum choice. Raising the tax 20 cents per gallon would raise $1 billion and would still leave pump prices well below year-ago levels.

Many Republican lawmakers insist they can find enough money for roads by trimming other spending. Well, show us the cuts. So far, they’ve produced a lot of half-baked ideas that would either devastate other essential programs, aren’t legal or require a vote of the people.

Perhaps some sort of blended plan of a fuel tax hike and reprioritizing spending may work.

But both the revenue and the cuts have to be real. Lawmakers should not be allowed to get away with another cosmetic patch that doesn’t meet the very real need in Michigan for safer, smoother roads.

Prop 1’s defeat doesn’t let them off the hook. Rather, it increases the urgency for them to do their jobs.