OPINION

The CP Edit: Fix the damn roads

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We were delighted to hear Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announce at her second State of the State Address last week that she would unilaterally move forward to break the political logjam with Republicans in the Michigan Legislature over where to find the billions of dollars needed to repair the state’s crumbling roads. The morning after her speech, the State Transportation Commission approved her plan, voting to issue $3.5 billion in state bonds to fix Michigan’s freeways and other roads under state jurisdiction.

We’re not certain that the rhetorical grenades Whitmer launched at legislative Republicans during her speech was the most constructive approach to winning their cooperation on this or any other issue, especially after invoking the bipartisan spirit of the late, great Gov. William Milliken. But we certainly share her frustration over the partisan bickering that has forestalled any meaningful agreement on a comprehensive solution to road funding. Taking the matter into her own hands is, in this instance, the right thing to do.

The obvious shortcoming of her plan is that none of the $3.5 billion can be used to fix local roads in Michigan. That means thousands of miles of city thoroughfares and neighborhood streets that are in the worst shape of all will continue to deteriorate. The governor’s half measure is certainly better than nothing, so we won’t complain when orange barrels pop up like daisies along state freeways and trunk lines in the coming construction season. But the urgent need to address the pathetic condition of the rest of Michigan’s roads remains unsolved.

We support a solution that no one seems to be talking about for reasons that aren’t readily apparent. Our rather simple and elegant approach to solving the road funding riddle is a temporary, five-year increase in the state sales tax. A 2-cent increase, from the current level of 6 cents to 8 cents on the dollar, would generate approximately $3 billion per year — nearly $15 billion over the next five years.

Because the sales tax rate is enshrined in the Michigan Constitution, an amendment must be placed on the statewide ballot and approved by a majority vote of the people. Republicans in the state legislature are loath to approve new taxes for any reason, but their constituents could well embrace a temporary sales tax boost if 100 percent of the revenues are constitutionally dedicated to fixing local roads, with no shell games diverting the money to other programs.Critics may argue that the sales tax approach was tried once before and overwhelmingly defeated by state voters. Our rebuttal is that the ill-fated 2015 ballot proposal was so complicated by extraneous measures tie-barred to the road funding fix that no one understood what it would really do. Voters weren’t rejecting a sales tax increase to fix the roads, they were rejecting the Rube Goldberg language of the proposal, which so muddled the measure that voters simply said no out of sheer confusion.

Our strategy hinges on the idea that the ballot language would only ask voters to increase the sales tax by 2 cents for five years and that every dollar is guaranteed to flow down to local governments to fix local roads. Nothing more and nothing less. We think such a measure would pass for a simple reason: Michigan residents have had enough of the potholes and the political squabbling over how to fix them.

Others will argue that increasing the sales tax is fundamentally regressive and would have a disproportionate impact on Michigan’s poorest residents. There is truth in this concern, but the inequities inherent in a higher sales tax can be ameliorated by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit through a separate legislative act. We would oppose including this provision in the ballot language so as not to detract from the sales tax proposal’s simplicity.

We also agree with the governor that the various ideas floated by legislative Republicans — selling state-owned bridges, raiding the teacher’s pension fund, or shifting the existing sales tax on gasoline away from schools and local governments — are non-starters. Nor are we persuaded by the notion that the state has plenty of money to fix the roads. If that were true, we would already be driving on fresh pavement wherever we go, while leaving tire tracks on the backs of our state education system and other key budget areas that would have been decimated to generate the billions of dollars needed to actually fix the roads.

For what it’s worth, by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot, tax-averse legislators can fall back on the political cover that they didn’t vote to increase taxes, they merely agreed to let the people of Michigan decide for themselves if they want to raise the funds needed to fix local roads — or not.

We welcome other reasonable, politically viable ideas to bake the local half of the road repair loaf, but we’ve all been waiting a long time for a realistic plan to come forward. It’s time to let the people decide on a temporary sales tax increase to get the job done, and done right.

Send letters to the editor on this editorial or any other topic to letters@lansingcitypulse.com. Please limit them to 250 words.

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