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Friday, December 19, 2014
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Published: Friday, 2/15/2013

Hikes in gas tax, vehicle fees are touchy issues in Michigan

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

DETROIT — Do Michigan’s lawmakers have the will to vote for spending that is painful but necessary if the state is to have a prayer of being economically competitive in years to come? Spending that will require steep fee increases and tax hikes affecting virtually every adult in the state?

We’re about to find out.

Gov. Rick Snyder has made it his top priority to get lawmakers to pass increases in the state gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees that will mean at least $1.2 billion a year in new revenue.

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

According to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Michigan, 88 percent of Michigan roads and streets that were eligible for federal aid in 2004 were in good or fair shape.

But two years ago, that figure had declined to just under 65 percent, and has likely fallen further. The state hasn’t spent the money needed to maintain its roads.

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 that 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 onto their vehicles.

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

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

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

That’s not insignificant, especially for Michiganians who are struggling. But according to the Center for Michigan study, transportation officials estimated four years ago that bad roads cost the average vehicle owner about $370 a year in extra expenses, such as road-related repairs.

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

Many residents who might be helped most by better roads appear not to understand what’s at stake. A woman who described herself as a low-income retiree from northern Michigan wrote to me: “I am supposed to swallow [higher] registration fees and a stiff increase in the gas tax so big business can enjoy smooth roads?”

Voters such as her — 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 roads, 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-fifth to one-fourth as much 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?

Former state Rep. Paul Opsommer, a Republican, was a fervent opponent of the proposed new bridge over the Detroit River.

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

Eventually, the governor found a constitutional loophole that allowed him to reach agreement with Canada to build the New International Trade Crossing anyway.

Thanks to term limits, Mr. Opsommer had to leave the Legislature in January. Now he is a lobbyist for the man who owns the Ambassador Bridge, which faces competition from the new bridge — billionaire Manuel Moroun.

Mr. Opsommer, who got campaign contributions from Mr. Moroun, is working for CenTra, Inc., the trucking company that is the foundation of the many-tentacled Moroun empire. Michigan, unlike many other states, has no law to prevent lawmakers and other public officials from leaving office and immediately going to work for interests they oversaw just days before.

Mr. Opsommer claims there is no impropriety because he isn’t working for the bridge company itself. But editorials in newspapers across the state asserted his deal doesn’t pass the smell test.

While Michigan needs an ethics law, it might be time to question whether term limits are a good idea. Will a lawmaker who knows he or she will soon need a job be tough on businesses and agencies that are potential employers?

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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