2020 may well travel a familiar road

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It’s all about fixing the damn roads. Again. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s popular 2018 gubernatorial campaign returns in 2020’s opening months as the big-ticket item.

The 45-cent-a-gallon tax increase is out. Potentially, expanded bonding options are in. Whitmer will let us all know for sure by her Jan. 29 State of the State address if and how she’s looking at raising $2.5 billion a year for roads.

But as we look ahead in this column toward what we can expect from Lansing in 2020, what’s underneath the hood of Whitmer Road Funding 2.0 is less important than whom she’s willing to share the road with.

The landing strip is there for the Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature as it heads toward a presidential election. It’s just very thin and not very long.

— Road Funding  The popular chatter in town has Whitmer’s team exploring bonding for roads. For a fiscally conservative Republican, the only thing likely less appealing than raising gas taxes is borrowing money for infrastructure through bonding. Particularly for this crew of lawmakers.

Michigan pays $160 million every year for John Engler’s road bonding adventures of the 1990s. The roads he repaired need to be fixed again, but we’re all still paying the debt service. Going well above the $1 billion the governor could legally bond through the State Transportation Commission isn’t the Legislature’s first, second or third option.

House, Senate and administration officials made some headway on this issue last year. A compromise could include Speaker Lee Chatfield’s push to have all gas tax go to the roads and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s drive to bond out a portion of the teacher pension payments would still need to be in the mix.

A complicating factor is Southeast Michigan legislators like Sen. Pete Lucido, who insist that driver registration fees be spent in the county where collected. Big-county lawmakers like Lucido like that a lot because it means more money for them. Northern Michigan lawmakers — who include Chatfield — don’t.

The closer the calendar gets to Nov. 3, 2020, the more likely a sustainable road-funding plan is kicked to lame duck, where a concrete deadline helps chase away politics.

Expungement reform The new conservative Republican sees fiscal sense in keeping people out of prison. If that means wiping away criminal records to give former inmates a better shot at getting a job, so be it.

The House already took a step in this direction in 2019. As long as victims’ rights are addressed, the Senate could follow through with something that could be sent to the governor this year.

— Michigan Reconnect The governor’s plan to pay community college or skill trades training for non-traditional students is any easy sell for Republicans, even if it means the end of the Snyder-era GoingPro program.

Bringing back money for the Pure Michigan tourism campaign could be the Republicans’ return ask since the constituents of the Northern Michigan lawmakers saw a financial bump from the ads.

— Southeast Michigan transit Nothing pisses off a rural Oakland County taxpayer more than the thought of paying an extra millage for “empty buses” that serve the county’s urban area. Still, the Michigan business community that cuts checks to the Republican leadership caucuses want a coordinated Michigan transit system badly.

This makes it likely the Legislature will pass a plan that allows Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties to ask their voters to support a millage for a coordinated regional transit system, something that’s been hanging around since Bill Milliken.

— Red Meat No legislative session before an election is complete without some votes to excite the majority’s base. This year, Right to Life has collected signatures for an initiated law to end what are known in the medical field as Dilation and Evacuation (D&E) abortions but is being sold as “dismemberment abortions.”

Once the secretary of state verifies enough signatures were collected, the House and Senate will pass the initiated law without Whitmer’s signature in about 10 minutes. Whether it will stand up in the courts will be the more compelling question.

Finally, look for a resolution or law clearing the way for “Second Amendment Sanctuary Counties.” Inspired by a situation in Virginia, the idea is that county sheriffs could refuse to enforce any state-enacted strict gun-control law.

An enormous social media push has been ignited on this, giving conservative Republicans in rural areas fertile ground to score big political points.

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol newsletter MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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