Road funding: Just fix the damn roads

November 27, 2015
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In May, Michigan voters sent a clear message to Lansing: find a better way to “fix the damn roads”! They voted to reject the hastily crafted proposal, and now we finally have a deal to fix Michigan’s long-neglected infrastructure. Or do we?

One of the hottest “tickets” in Lansing has been to the various House and Senate committees trying to craft a compromise solution to Michigan’s infrastructure repairs. The governing body had been at an impasse since the voters turned down the ballot issue.

Finally, after months of posturing, haggling and politicizing, leaders reached a compromise solution in October, which the governor promptly signed into law. The compromise involved raising slightly the gas tax and registration fees and adding $600 million from the General Fund.

Evidently, few legislators or special interests were happy. Even before the ink dried, cries of foul play could be heard.

The General Fund exists to pay for things like road and bridge repairs, among other services. Michigan does need a permanent long-term solution to fix and maintain crumbling roads and bridges. The main purpose of government, and by inference the General Fund, is to provide its citizens those services they can’t easily provide for themselves: public safety, public education, infrastructure, defense, etc.

Listening to the debates around the state, one would think the solution to the repairs issue has been relegated to the level of a “special interest.” That is how far we have come from the state Constitution.

The power interests in Lansing, much like in Washington, D.C., appear more concerned about advancing and protecting their special interests than focusing on the common good. We have so bloated the state with special programs and needs that “common good” interests are being relegated to the level of “special” interests.

Some may argue that Michigan should find a solution without raiding the General Fund, and that such revenue should come from the users of roads and bridges.

The General Fund once had a clear, historical purpose tied to the Constitution and the role of government. The special interest rhetoric, well intentioned as it may be, provides another example of why it is difficult for government to focus on core issues. There are simply too many special interest groups vying for the limited resources of our state.

We need to agree General Fund priority No. 1 is to maintain the ongoing infrastructure necessary for Michigan to conduct its affairs. This includes roads, bridges, schools, criminal justice, and whatever the citizens believe is important for them to succeed.

But when special interests interfere, narrowing the priorities and process to “game” the system, the focus of elected officials becomes fuzzy and divided. How can we achieve consensus when every special interest sees the General Fund as a target, a bank account from which to withdraw for its own goals and purposes? Following the “users pay” logic, should public education also be paid by users, as well as the criminal justice system and other services?

Previous governors and legislators also have raided the “dedicated” (by constitutional mandate) gas tax to fund current or temporary priorities. Could we ever establish a workable user fee system and get enough citizens to believe it will work? If yes, then what would be the purpose of the General Fund — to fund the priorities of whichever group gains power?

Michigan’s taxpayers want the infrastructure fixed. Our elected officials (and special interests) must be clear: The General Fund must be used to pay for those repairs. This must be an ongoing priority that requires permanent placement in the General Fund.

Now we have reached a “compromise” solution that is already being criticized and targeted for repeal and reversal. And if the Legislature and governor’s office change sides any time soon, guess what will happen? You can bank on more “kicking the can” down the road.

While we may have resolved the current issue, the fundamental problems and the process will repeat: We’ll have a crisis, we’ll try to fix it, we’ll run out of money, another crisis will occur, and we’ll hear the cries for raising taxes to cover the shortfall.

We can and must do better.

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