JACK SPENCER: Road funding, too many non-moving parts

Most readers are likely aware that two goals formed the centerpiece of Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2013 legislative agenda. So far, the legislature has delivered neither.

At the beginning of the year, Snyder asked lawmakers to come up with $1.2 billion in new annual funding for road funding (often referred to as transportation infrastructure) and to expand Medicaid. Due to its link to Obamacare, Medicaid expansion is the far more contentious of the two issues. So it is somewhat ironic that the legislature has always been more likely to deliver the votes for Medicaid expansion than to find a way to pony up with road funding dollars.

In the final analysis, passing Medicaid expansion is just a matter of getting the votes. Yes, getting the needed votes in the Senate will be difficult and could prove impossible — but at least it presents a well-defined target. With the road funding issue the target is far from well-defined and continues to be elusive.

In the Michigan House the votes for Medicaid expansion were there from the beginning. The big question was whether House Speaker Jase Bolger, R- Marshall, would be willing to turn to the Democrats to move the measure. If so, with roughly 50 Democrats ready to vote “yes,” there was little doubt about attaining the 56 “yes” votes needed for passage.

Last month, Bolger allowed the Democrats to supply the bulk of the votes for Medicaid expansion while a majority of his own GOP caucus voting against it. This move was part of a push to force the issue before the votes were lined up in the Senate. This premature maneuver might actually help prevent the measure from ever reaching Snyder’s desk.

Yet, in spite of this misstep, Snyder still seems closer to getting Medicaid expansion than he is to getting a new revenue stream for road funding.

Ultimately the obstacle to solving the road funding dilemma is pretty simple. Collectively, lawmakers aren’t willing to come up with enough cuts to other areas of the budget to provide the funding; nor are they willing to get the funding by raising taxes and fees.

With a majority of groups across the state supporting the concept of coming up with new funding for roads, one might think a solution could be found. Instead, the opposite is true. The large number of groups and associations engaged has reduced the chances that any creative idea will be advanced that might solve the road funding puzzle.

Not only is this dynamic nothing new in the legislature; it has actually become a drama that plays out every year regarding road funding. Here we see an interesting paradox. The larger the coalition is, the less likely it will be to offer a workable plan.

In reality, the quest for a new funding stream to supply money for Michigan roads has been going on since the middle of the last decade. Snyder’s decision to make the quest a top priority this year brought more attention to this annual issue, but the obstacles involved are still firmly in place.

Officially, the coalition pressing for new road funding dollars is called the Michigan Transportation Team (MTT). It includes many of groups that tend to be influential at the Capitol. But year after year, it has failed to get what it wants.

Where’s the problem? Any coalition that includes that many interests is limited in what it can bring to the table. To achieve its goal the coalition is basically forced into the proverbial position of attempting to make an omelet without breaking any eggs.

For instance, such a coalition apparently cannot propose numerous specific budget cuts as a starting point for getting the desired revenue. To do so would certainly mean proposing cuts to items that member groups in the coalition would oppose.

Without the option of recommending cuts, the coalition is limited to supporting measures that, one way or another, would hit taxpayers. That leaves it up to the lawmakers to seek more balanced alternatives.

But there are no balanced alternatives that don’t involve making the sort of tough cuts that lawmakers are rarely able to rally around.

Another obstacle to getting new road funding dollars is the eternal problem of asking voters to agree to increase their own taxes. In many ways, the legislature and government officials compound this difficulty with incredible regularity.

A very real change takes place after lawmakers and officials start dealing with budgets. For lack of better term, we’ll call this change an initiation into the “a million here, a million there club.”

Faced with spending decisions involving tens of billions of dollars, government officials and lawmakers begin thinking of smaller amounts as “chump change.” This attitude results in a willingness to shrug off “small” spending items as not being worth fighting over.

Eventually some (by no means all) of these appropriations come to the attention of the voters. Once that happens it becomes virtually impossible to convince them that their government is spending taxpayer dollars carefully.

To voters, $1 million, $2 million or even $500,000 still seems like a lot of money. What’s more, voters tend to pay less attention to the amount spent than to the purpose for which the dollars are spent; particularly if it’s a questionable purpose.

In other words, expenditures that government officials and lawmakers see as too small to quibble about produce additional obstacles to getting voter support for any kind of tax increase.

Just once, it would be refreshing to see the annual effort to get a new revenue stream for road funding start with serious government belt-tightening. Showing voters a list cuts instead of only talking about the need for higher taxes could potentially get some momentum going. Such an approach might not be successful, but it isn’t likely to be any less successful than the approach taken over the past few years.

This of course would have to be done by the Governor or a faction in the legislature. A large coalition of special interests would never find the political flexibility to pull it off.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.