Michigan Legislature adjourns without gas tax hike

The floor of the Michigan Senate. (June 12, 2014)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Legislature adjourned late Thursday for much of the summer without voting to pump more money into road improvements after election-year talks broke down over a gradual gasoline tax increase.

Senators a day earlier had balked at a major plan to more than double fuel taxes over five years to raise at least $1 billion to fix deteriorating roads and bridges.

An attempt to pass a more modest proposal to boost fuel taxes to keep pace with inflationary road construction costs never gained muster in the Republican-controlled Senate Thursday despite a similar plan winning bipartisan support in the GOP-led House last month.

The scaled-back Senate version of the bill would have let the 19-cents-a-gallon gas tax rise each year by whatever is less — 5 percent or the annual change in highway construction costs. Gas and diesel taxes may ultimately have gone as high as 32 ½ cents a gallon, though it could have been decades before the ceiling was hit.

It would not come close to raising the minimum $1.2 billion to $2 billion more a year that Gov. Rick Snyder and others say is needed now to bring the transportation system up to par.

The Republican governor said he would not have been satisfied with the alternate plan as a long-term solution but saw it as a positive step to help address the structural problem of declining gas taxes — caused by people driving less and with more fuel-efficient cars. The per-gallon gas tax was last increased, by 4 cents, in 1997.

“There’s just more work to be done,” Snyder said after lawmakers adjourned, a blow to advocates of more transportation spending who believe the public’s openness to paying higher taxes increased when roads became peppered with potholes after the severe winter. “I’m going to be relentless in the pursuit of a long-term solution. I think there’s a lot of people in the Legislature now that have that same kind of attitude.”

Democrats lay the blame on Republicans, who control the Legislature.

“The Republican commitment was not lived up to,” said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing.

She said two-thirds of her 12-member caucus joined with one-third of 26 Republicans Wednesday to back gradually raising the 19-cent gasoline tax to 41 ½ cents by 2019.

Once that vote — which was tied to tax relief for homeowners and renters Democrats wanted — fell short, Democrats opposed scaled-back alternatives as lacking.

“We lived up to our end of the bargain and beyond,” Whitmer said. “But Republican infighting destroyed it. And once again, you’ve failed the electorate, our citizens and our businesses in Michigan. … We have missed a real opportunity.”

Republicans countered that Democrats should have helped pass the backup plan while work continues on a comprehensive solution.

“The other side of the aisle didn’t want to participate in fixing the problems that we could, the short-term problems here and voted against most of them,” said Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe. “If that legislation that we tried to pass today had passed 17 years ago, we wouldn’t be having these meetings and we wouldn’t have problems with the roads.”

He plans to convene a workgroup to tackle road funding over the summer and make recommendations in September.

The Senate is scheduled to be in session two days before Labor Day, the House for four days — as many legislators prepare for the August primary. The chances of legislative action in September before the November general election appear slim.

Michigan — home to the headquarters of major U.S. auto companies — spends less per driver on roads than any other state, yet also has some of the country’s highest taxes at the pump because the sales tax applied to motor fuel mostly goes to schools and local governments under the state constitution.

Because plans to boost fuel taxes are stalled, other transportation-funding bills that have cleared the House and Senate are on hold.

They would increase the 15-cents-per-gallon diesel tax to the equivalent of the 19-cent gas tax, make vehicle registration fee changes and shift sales tax collected at the pump not already constitutionally earmarked for schools and local governments to transportation.


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