Editorial: House roads plan is mostly fantasy

The Detroit News

It’s a good thing leaders in the state Senate have ordered their members to stay in session this summer to get a road funding deal done. The plan offered by their House counterparts Wednesday indicates there is a lot of hard work ahead to bring lawmakers to a realistic solution.

Give the Senate plenty of credit for setting the right tone. Finding a road revenue answer is the most urgent priority facing Michigan, and the Legislature can’t allow it to linger until the resumption of the session this fall.

“We’ve got to get this thing done, so if it means inconveniencing a few people, so be it,” says Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall, R-White Lake.

Darn straight. But the schedule is just part of the challenge. Getting lawmakers to accept reality is the much bigger piece.

There’s little in the way of realism in House Speaker Kevin Cotter’s proposal to find $1 billion annually for road work from wishes and gimmicks.

The centerpiece of Cotter’s plan would direct $700 million from the general fund to road projects. What he’s proposing is mostly fantasy. Cotter would get the bulk of the money not from genuine spending cuts — although there are some of those, some of which make sense — but rather from future growth in tax revenue.

There are myriad problems with that approach, chief among them that there’s no certainty there will be future tax growth, or that it will match Cotter’s projections. A downturn in the economy means the primary source of new funds for roads would dry up.

Also, the cost of government will not remain static. If new revenue growth is diverted to roads, it will steal funds that would normally go to cover cost increases in other areas, including education and corrections.

The speaker would also rob money from the Tobacco Settlement Fund, now used to pay for job training and creation, divert money from Indian gaming to roads and kill the $50 million film subsidy. That $185 million, plus the $162 million in higher taxes and fees on hybrid, electric and diesel vehicles, is about the only real cash in Cotter’s proposal. And it’s not nearly enough to get the job done.

The speaker does have some good ideas, including more competitive bidding for local and state road projects and stronger guarantees from contractors that their work will hold up.

But in all, this is barely a starting point for a productive discussion.

Cotter is continuing the legislative position that more than $1 billion can be found for roads out of thin air without asking Michigan motorists for additional taxes.

As the speaker’s proposal shows, that’s not possible.

So lawmakers should go ahead and cancel their tee times and see if they can get a refund on their beach bungalows. This promises to be a long summer.

Perhaps if it gets humid enough in the Capitol, lawmakers will find the motivation to do what they should have done last fall — raise fuel taxes and give Michigan motorists safe, smooth roads.