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Columns
Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Common Sense and Statesmanship?

February 15, 2013

DETROIT – Do Michigan’s lawmakers have the will to vote for some painful spending that is absolutely necessary if the state has any prayer of being economically competitive in years to come?

Spending, that has to include steep fee increases and tax hikes that will affect virtually every adult in the entire state?

Well, we are about to find out.

Gov. Rick Snyder has made his top priority getting lawmakers to pass gasoline tax increases and hikes in car registration fees that will mean at least $1.2 billion in new revenue a year.

There’s no doubt about the need for the spending. This is not money for new roads, or bridges to nowhere. This is merely, transportation experts agree, the minimum necessary to prevent the state’s current roads and bridges from completely crumbling.

According to a study by the non-partisan Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, 88 percent of all Michigan’s roads and streets eligible for federal funding were in good or fair shape back in 2004.
But two years ago, that had declined to just under 65 percent, and has likely fallen further still. The state hasn’t been spending the money needed to maintain its roads for years.

The news gets worse. Almost half the state’s roads aren’t eligible for federal funding – and of those, only 10 percent were in good shape in 2011. Overdrive, a trucking magazine, recently rated the state’s roads the second worst in the nation.

You don’t have to be a site selection expert to realize businesses are not likely to move to a state where their employees are likely to break axles in potholes, and where overpasses drop pieces of concrete down onto their cars.

Accordingly, in his budget message last week, Snyder called on lawmakers to raise the wholesale gas tax by 14 cents a gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 19 cents, bringing both to 33 cents.

Additionally, he proposed steep vehicle registration fee hikes: 60 percent for cars and light trucks; 25 percent on heavy rigs.

Economically, it is hard to argue with the logic of the governor’s proposal. If enacted, the fee increases are likely to cost the average motorist something like $250 a year.

That’s not easy, especially for those already struggling. But according to the Bridge Magazine study, transportation officials estimated four years ago that bad roads cost the average car owner something like $370 a year in extra expenses, like repairs.

Nor are potholes and crumbling roads good for agriculture and tourism. Yet any lawmaker voting for any tax increases is apt to be attacked, especially Republicans, who may also face primary challenges as a result from the Tea Party.

The far-right group, Americans for Prosperity, alleged that no new money at all is needed to fix the roads, though about the only way you could get the needed fixes without tax increases would be to cut off all aid to higher education, or perhaps close down the prison system and set the Michigan’s convicted felons free.

Last year, the governor might have been able to look to Democrats for some support that would make up for defecting Republicans. But after what they see as his betrayal on right-to-work, few Democrats are in the mood to do Snyder any favors.

And many citizens who might be helped most by better roads appear to just not understand what’s at stake.

A woman who described herself as a low-income retiree from northern Michigan wrote, “I am supposed to swallow (higher) registration fees and a stiff increase in the gas tax so that BIG business can enjoy smooth roads?”

Voters like this – and fanatics whose faith centers around the idea that all taxes are bad – will be a major problem for those who need to find the money to repair Michigan roads.

But if lawmakers don’t find the political will to vote to raise taxes for the roads, one thing is perfectly clear: Things will get much worse.

Transportation officials estimate that the cost of bringing a road in fair condition up to good status is only one-fourth to one-fifth as expensive as repairing a road in truly bad condition.

This year, we’re likely to learn how much common sense and statesmanship exist in Michigan’s term-limited legislature.

***
Ethics? Who needs ethics? State Rep. Paul Opsommer, a Republican from the small town of DeWitt, was a fervent opponent of the proposed new bridge over the Detroit River.

As chair of the House Transportation Committee, he did his best to stymie the governor’s efforts to build it, despite near-unanimous support from state business leaders.

Eventually, the governor found a constitutional loophole allowing him to reach an “interlocal” agreement with Canada to build the New International Trade Crossing anyway.

Thanks to term limits, Opsommer had to leave the legislature in January. What did he do then? Why, take a job as a lobbyist for the man who owns the bridge, billionaire Matty Moroun.

The 59-year-old Opsommer, who also received campaign contributions from Moroun, is actually working for CenTra, Inc., the trucking company that is the foundation of the many-tentacled Moroun empire. He could do that because Michigan, unlike many other states, has no law preventing lawmakers and public officials from leaving office and immediately going to work for interests they were overseeing just days before.

Though Opsommer claimed there was no impropriety because he isn’t working for the bridge company itself, editorials across the state indicated his deal doesn’t pass the smell test.

While an ethics law is sorely needed, it might also be time to question whether term limits are a good idea. If a legislator knows he or she will soon need a job, are they likely to be tough on businesses and agencies that they may well need to employ them?

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

February 14, 2013 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jean Kozek // Feb 15, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Michigan’s roads and bridges have been a topic of concern for years. The main road from our sub, Tienken Rd. is a disaster because in the 25 yrs. we’ve lived here, none of it has been taken down and then rebuilt. The question is who will pay for new construction.

    Republicans cut business taxes by 83% yet didn’t identify where cost cuts would occur when fewer tax dollars were available. I was disgusted that such huge business tax cuts were granted when roads and bridges were in such dire shape. Why make such drastic tax cuts when major public infrastructure needs are looming? Obviously, Republicans had pre-determined who would pay for such costs: the wage earners. Businesses would be exempt.

    I oppose regressive taxes such as sales taxes, gas taxes and car registration fees because they are unrelated to employment and earnings. Everyone pays the same rate. And, I resent that businesses which claim to benefit the most from better roads are least affected by the Governor’s proposed tax increases. Wage earners experienced increases in their state taxes this year because Republicans have already decided on the winners and losers. I’m angry at being on the losers’ side of the tax issues.

  • 2 Anagnorisis // Feb 15, 2013 at 10:15 am

    This intrepid journalist certainly raises a multiplicity of issues herein. While closing down the prison system we might as well eliminate the State Police. There’s actually a silver lining to that ominous cloud since there are hefty categories of prisoners that don’t deserve to be there and the State Police, as Freep cartoonist Mike Thompson paradied, have reversed their insignia to Police State. Ethics, term limits, bridge to somewhere tangible, all pertinent and justifiable matters. Frankly, when the freeway system was being built, there was lots of tax money for everything due to less pork and inflation as working class morphed into middle class, concrete and labor was much cheaper, and higher education cost a slim fraction in comparison, legislative subsidies since having negligible affect. It is ever ironic that how we got here cannot be reversed to return to the good old days. Like Detroit – whoa, that’s another story – we’re not willing to take the incremental steps necessary to adjust the shortfall (think Social Security). Term limits created corruption of legislative office as well defined by Mr. Lessenberry without actually having to say so. Paradoxically a bill to eliminate term limits and instill ethical guidelines is unlikely because the very introduction would admit both legislative failure and lack of ethics, a Catch-22 oxymoron. In this same climate it is impossible to halt the crumbling of infrastructure across the entire spectrum. Even in ignominy Matty Maroun still functions as Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, Michigan. Forget Lansing – everybody else has.

  • 3 Alvin Harvy // Feb 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Pot holes,slow down & go around them until they are repaired! Patching material’s are improving all the time ,Ashpalt alway’s seem’s to pop out because crew’s dont prep the hole ,they throw a shovel full of material in then gone to do another one.Only 25% hike for big rig’s that out weigh the average car & pickup,go figure !

  • 4 Mrs. A // Feb 15, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Doesn’t seem fair that big rig trucks, which from sheer weight do far more damage than my little economy passenger sedan could, get a smaller increase in registration fees (inherently regressive anyway). I don’t mind paying my share, but I’d like it to be set up as fairly as possible. The lion’s share of the revenue should come from gas taxes where those who use the road most and log the most miles are paying more.

  • 5 Doris // Feb 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Mr. Lessenberry was never as good a reporter as he used to get credit for, or he has just become a lazy journalist over the years. I can cut him a break if he wants to put himself on say the same level as a Rush Limbaugh, more an entertainer than a reporter, but I doubt Mr. Lessenberry views himself that way. When he does use facts, they are selective facts at best, designed to support the opinion he wanted to portray in the first place and filled with hyperbole. Nowhere here does he discuss the high registration fees and gas taxes in our state, way above average compared to the rest of the US. Nowhere does he discuss that the 6% sales tax on gas, unique to MI, does not go towards roads (about $700 million). We have a major diversion problem here, other departments stealing road dollars. In regards to Opsommer, the only engrained criticism of the bridge I have seen was his opposition to MDOT trying to use a bridge bill to allow for toll roads anywhere in the state (HB 4961 Gonzalez if you’re interested Mr. Lessenberry). I don’t want toll roads. I’m willing to pay more in a gas tax, but only when its needed after all of our gas tax money is going to roads.

  • 6 DOUG // Feb 17, 2013 at 9:38 am

    HEY! WHY DON`T WE GO BACK TO PART TIME LEGISLATURES & GET TWO THINGS DONE,SAVE MONEY,& THEY WOULD ALREADY HAVE A JOB WHEN THERE TERM IS UP. I FIND THAT SO VERY INTERESTING ABOUT THE GAS TAX NOT GOING FOR THE ROAD UP KEEP,SOUNDS JUST LIKE THE FEDERAL GOV.& WHAT THEY DID TO OUR SOCIAL SECURITY&THEN THEY SAY IT`S THE PROBLEM.IF THEY WANT TO MAKE SOME NEW LAWS, HOW ABOUT ONE TO KEEP THEM FROM MISS USING FUNDS.

  • 7 David Waymire // Feb 22, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Doris: I’ll defend Jack as one of the best reporters and overall analysts around. The sales tax on gas is not “diverted.” It was never intended to be used for transportation. It goes in large part to school funding. If you support using it for transportation, then you need to propose how you would cover a substantial hole in state education funding…or be willing to support even larger class sizes (I would be very interested in a Dome report on the average size of classes in K-4 in Michigan today. I know in my district the goal of 20 kids in those rooms has been destroyed, with many 1st grade teachers facing 25-30 students…something I know no legislator could handle.)

  • 8 Bill Williams // Feb 26, 2013 at 11:27 am

    The proposed gas and registration tax increase is an unfair, regressive tax on the “little guy”, the low and middle income people.

    I say lets use a State graduated income tax on individuals which would result in lower or equal taxation on most folks in Michigan, AND a little tax on corporations as they had a cut in their total business tax two years ago, at the expense of “working poor” and the state and school retirees, the “little guy”.

    I understand the need for better roads and bridges now and in the future grand scheme of “a transportation corridor” between Halifax and Iowa but lets not do it on the backs of the little guy, the low and middle income people.

    I understand that the current republican controlled state government will decide if and how the roads will be fixed for now.

    That’s what I think Mr. Lessenberry.

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