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Ex-lawmakers have plan to fix roads, but you may not like it

• Feb 7, 2019 at 4:00 PM

Michigan has the worst roads in the country.

And virtually everyone — I mean, everyone, from the right-leaning Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission impaneled by former Gov. Rick Snyder, to the new state transportation department director appointed by Snyder's successor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — agrees that it will cost the state about $2.6 billion a year more than it's spending now to fix them.

Now four retired Michigan legislative leaders — two Republicans and two Democrats — have unveiled a plan to raise the whole $2.6 billion, plus an extra $100 million a year for local roads, by hiking the state's fuel tax 47 cents a gallon over the next nine years, beginning with a 7-cent bump in 2020.

Innovative? Hardly: The per-gallon fuel tax is the same well the state tapped the last two times it boosted road funding, in 1997 and 2017.

Forward-looking? To the contrary: Taxing gas and diesel fuel more heavily would exacerbate Michigan's dependency on fossil fuels just as the global auto industry is pivoting to electric vehicles.

And politically, the retired legislators' proposal is bound to disappoint everyone from fiscal conservatives, for whom any tax is anathema, to progressives, who think the financial burden should fall hardest on businesses who enjoyed big tax cuts over the past decade while the state's roads languished.

So why, I asked former Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, do he and his former legislative colleagues think anyone will rally around their plan?

"Because Michigan has the worst roads in the country," Sikkema answered. "And fixing them is only going to get more expensive."

Sikkema has a point. And the straightforward simplicity of the plan he and former Democratic Senate Minority Leader Bob Emerson outlined in a meeting with the Detroit Free Press editorial board may be its strongest selling point in a state where anger over roads has reached a boiling point.

80 years in the trenches

The legislative veterans behind the plan — besides Sikkema and Emerson, the quartet includes former Republican House Speaker Paul Hillegonds and former Senate minority leader John Cherry — did not fall off a horse-drawn turnip truck.

As a group, they represent more than eight decades of legislative experience. Cherry and Emerson also served in Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration: Cherry as lieutenant governor and Emerson as state treasurer.

The four began meeting last June under the auspices of the non-profit Center for Michigan, with the objective of proposing solutions to the state's hairiest public policy challenges that could command the support of elected officials in both parties.

But Sikkema and Emerson, the group's co-chairmen, both cautioned me against describing their alliance as bipartisan.

"We're a partisan state, and our government is organized along partisan lines," Sikkema said. "Our challenge is to find consensus in that partisan environment."

Toward that end, the group set out last summer to find a roads funding solution that would raise the extra $2.6 billion a year everyone agrees is needed, and avoid as many political trip wires as possible.

The per-gallon gas tax was a revenue source with several obvious advantages:

• It is an existing mechanism whose proceeds were already allocated according to a long-established distribution formula that took into account both the diverse needs of Michigan residents and the political realities confronting their elected representatives.

• It was not tied directly to the price of gas and diesel fuel; although consumer demand tends to diminish during a sustained spike in pump prices, a fill-up generated the same revenue whether dealers were charging $2 a gallon or $4.

• History demonstrated that motorists could tolerate incremental gas tax increases, whose impact was sometimes muted, or at least camouflaged, by ordinary fluctuations in the market price of fuel.

• Finally, annual increases of just 5 cents a gallon after the first year would gradually generate more and more revenue, allowing the state and private contractors to increase their capacity at an incremental pace that moderated the cost of materials and labor.

Pain at the pump, in small doses

Sikkema and Emerson suggested that few motorists remember the last time legislators raised fuel taxes 7 cents a gallon, although that increase took effect just two years ago.

Even if drivers had to absorb another 7-cents-per-gallon increase today, the ex-legislators noted, most drivers would still pay less for a fill-up than they paid a year ago, when gas prices were higher.

The former legislative leaders did venture one creative tweak — a one-time 2-cents increase to fund a $100 million fund that local governments could tap to rebuild local roads not supervised by the state, provided the locals ponied up funds to match any state contribution.

Beyond assuring adequate funding for road reconstruction, the quartet labored to avoid as many complications as possible.

To objections that a fuel tax hike would be regressive, taking a disproportionate bite of smaller incomes, the former legislators answered: This is about roads; we'll tackle tax reform another time.

To those who pointed out that any tax on gas and diesel seemed likely to generate less and less revenue as manufacturers and consumers moved to more fuel-efficient vehicles, they responded: None of us has a crystal ball. Let's work with the vehicle mix and funding mechanisms we have now, and let future Legislatures adjust to changes in technology and consumer demand as they happen.

And to skeptics who suggested they had grossly over-estimated the blowback Michigan's current generation of elected leaders are willing to tolerate in pursuit of better roads, they shrugged: If someone knows an easier way to raise $2.6 billion, we'll endorse it.

But so far, they add, all Michigan's elected leaders have delivered to their constituents are the worst roads in America.

About the writer: Brian Dickerson is the editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by TNS.

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