JACK SPENCER: Roads haven’t been a priority in Lansing

Get ready to hear the complaints, allegations of shortsightedness and expressions of frustration. Gov. Rick Snyder’s bid to get the state legislature to double Michigan’s fuel tax just six months prior to the November election failed, flamed out and fizzled. It was perhaps a predictable flop.

From a strictly “politics of the moment” perspective the effort failed because the Democrats weren’t willing to share ownership of the increase with the Governor while letting most Republican lawmakers vote against it. Precisely why Republican leaders thought the issue could play-out otherwise remains a mystery. No doubt Lansing insiders are already telling tales of how close legislative leaders and Snyder came to cutting a deal. It is likely the final deal-killer was the last of a string of demands made by the Democrats.

Ultimately, Snyder’s drive — begun 18 months ago — to get the $1.5 billion revenue stream he wants for road funding failed because he was bargaining with the wrong people. The deal he should be trying to cut would be one with the taxpayers of Michigan — and it has to start with special interests in Lansing divvying up their share. And it is that missing share that accounts for all or most of the state’s road funding shortfall.

As the drama of the tax hike negotiations took place, the legislature was passing a $52 billion-plus budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Those who want to separate the budget from the road funding issue are basically saying “don’t look at that man behind the curtain.” In reality the heart of the political road funding dilemma is that Michigan voters sense that portions of the state’s budget would be better spent on roads. In other words, fixing the roads should be treated as a higher priority than some of the programs and projects in the budget that, more or less, receive automatic funding.

Let’s make it clear; simply yanking $1 million in spending out of the budget here and another $2 million there isn’t a solution. The $1.5 billion being sought needs to be a perennial revenue stream, not a patchwork of one-year-only appropriations. But this requirement is only a complication, not an insurmountable barrier.

Maintenance of roads and bridges is a basic and legitimate governmental responsibility — and one that residents have a right to expect will be a priority. Instead, the priority in Lansing has been to avoid stepping in the toes of special interests while placing road funding in the backseat.

If leaders in Lansing truly see road funding as a priority, they should consider changing the road funding formula so that all or most of the money spent at the pump goes to roads. Then, let the education and local government groups — which would lose funding due to the change — cooperate in finding replacement dollars by rearranging the budget.

That’s right; put the education and local government groups in the position of benefiting from finding fat in the budget to make up for no longer receiving revenues gathered at the pump. Anyone want to bet that they couldn’t find enough — once they’d been given that incentive? Some other special interests would lose out in the process, but better them than the taxpayers.

A political cost will be levied for the Governor’s inability to get the $1.5 billion revenue stream he wants for road funding. This recent ill-fated effort calls into question his claim to be a leader from outside of Lansing. Simply attempting to stick it to motorists by doubling the fuel tax isn’t the least bit innovative. It reflects the prevailing Lansing insider “government-first, taxpayer-last” mentality.

Coupled with the $317 million fall-off in expected state revenue projections and an only tenuously improving economy, the advantages Snyder has so far enjoyed in his re-election bid could start diminishing. He had better hope predictions that 2014 will be an overall “good” GOP election-year hold up.

A work group has been assigned to find a new solution to the road funding puzzle by September. One advantage the group will have is that the plan could be somewhat futuristic in nature, because fixing roads statewide is a long term process. Passage of a plan could still give Snyder a political victory. But if the workgroup’s new solution is just a rehash of this latest effort, a major political debacle could be the result.

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