Fix the Damn Roads?

Governor Whitmer Goes Big

True to her word the Governor is attempting to fix the damn roads with a rather bold approach: a 45 cent increase in Michigan’s gas tax, to be phased in over one year.  While others have pitched the idea of phasing this in over nine years, the Governor wants the estimated $2.5 billion now. Clearly, the proposal has its merits as Michigan has some of the worst roads in the nation. In the end, the Governor will get some increased funding,  but not everything she’s looking for.

It is likely that there will be plenty of Republican reluctance over the Governor’s proposal due to the costs it will place on voters in many Republican districts. While an extra $6.25 for 15 gallons may not seem like much, there are several outstate and even some inner core areas that will feel the sting. Compounding the issue is the sheer sticker shock of paying more than $3 per gallon at the pump once again.

Context Matters: Where are we and how did we get here?

In 2008 when gas was over $4 per gallon, there was a lot of concern from the tourism industry about high gas prices affecting people’s travel plans and negatively impacting local businesses. Northern Michigan is mostly represented by Republicans and these lawmakers won’t be eager to upset one of the largest industries in their districts. On top of that, there is also a large contingent of Republicans in the legislature that will not support a tax increase under any circumstances.

Even amongst the Governor’s fellow Democrats, there is likely to be some push back, especially from the Detroit delegation where auto insurance rates are the highest in the country. Adding an even greater expense at the pump certainly creates a hiccup for her plan.

No fault insurance reform is certainly a negotiating chip for Republicans, but it’s unclear if the Governor can give Republicans enough incentive to make it worth their while to back such a tax increase.

While everyone agrees there is a problem, the solution is never a simple one in politics.

Political Reality: What Comes Next

For policymakers, the next election is always in the back of their mind, and the Democrats are finally in a position to take control of the Michigan House. Democrats will want to get behind the Governor and give her a big win by fulfilling her main campaign promise, but the trick will be selling the tax increase in many parts of the state, as it will fall entirely on the consumer. I can easily see Republicans attacking big tax Democrats who are burdening middle-class families and small businesses.

Conversely, the Democrats will blame Republicans for continuing to allow our roads to crumble, putting the safety of families at risk, and creating additional vehicle maintenance costs for businesses and individuals. Both statements are technically true, but everything is true from a certain point of view in politics.

It is unlikely that there will be much movement in the near-term on the Governor’s proposal as both sides will want to use the issue to further their point at least through the next election. While there may be a push in lame duck,  that is no guarantee of passing this increase because many of the term-limited representatives and those entering their third terms will have an eye on continuing their careers in the Senate.

Much like in 2014, neither side wants to blink first, which is why it’s not out of the question for both sides to punt on the issue and see if the voters will accept higher taxes. It’s not impossible, it’s just a matter of targeting the right groups of people with a smart message. I think we can all agree that anything would be more effective than towing around a wrecked school bus.  

In the interim, sit back and watch the fireworks. Who knows, we may even fix the damn roads.


About the Author: Brian Began is the Elections and Research Director at Grassroots Midwest, Michigan’s only bipartisan advocacy firm.