At business conference, Lawmakers pressured to fix roads now

Mackinac Island and Lake Huron seen from the Grand Hotel. (May 28, 2014)


MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. (AP) — Business leaders and others pressed lawmakers Friday to act immediately to boost spending on Michigan’s road and bridge infrastructure, saying the recent defeat of a transportation-funding ballot measure did not diminish the need to enact an alternative plan as early as this summer.

“We’ve been talking about this issue far too long,” said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan.

He said Plan B should “mostly depend on additional (tax) revenues” but there could be some “well-reasoned” budgets cuts as long as they are not “very deep.”

Others on a panel at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Mackinac Policy Conference concurred, though some differed over how to actually to find $1.5 billion more for roads and bridges.

Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter has proposed legislation that would boost road spending by $1 billion primarily by earmarking some income and sales taxes for the transportation budget, diverting economic development money and eliminating a tax credit for lower-income workers. Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, said he supports higher fuel and vehicle registration taxes and is open to reprioritizing existing money “within reason.”

“I want to find solutions on how we can build Michigan stronger without doing it at the expense of other things if at all possible,” he told reporters Friday.

Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said state funding of local governments and universities remains below past levels and additional spending on K-12 schools is going toward pension and retiree costs instead of classroom instruction. The budget will be strained further as a tax cut on business equipment is phased in and the state begins covering a portion of Medicaid expansion costs, he said.

“There’s not $1.5 billion just lying around that we can grab onto and say, ‘There we go, we fixed our problem,'” Lupher said.

A representative for a conservative policy think tank partly disagreed, saying the Michigan Economic Development Corp. is ripe for cuts. Some conservatives argue the economic development agency lacks transparency and doesn’t bring enough jobs to Michigan to justify the spending.

“Every time we say that we need to raise a tax to fund the roads, it’s really a bald admission that the roads aren’t the highest priority,” said Joseph Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, adding that some new revenue may be needed in any legislative compromise.

Snyder and legislators plan to work on the issue over the summer, though it seems unlikely a deal will come until the fall at the earliest.

Westland Mayor William Wild said people realize they have to pay more for better roads but want assurances that the additional money will trickle back to their local streets.

The ballot proposal soundly defeated by voters in early May also would have raised taxes for schools and local governments while increasing a tax break for lower-wage residents as part of a legislative compromise. Snyder supported Proposal 1 after legislators balked at his call for higher fuel and vehicle taxes.

“This is a great opportunity to show some leadership … and get this thing done,” Wild said.

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