Elections stalling road funds
Voters want fixes, but candidates see the issue as divisive and lawmakers are slow to act.
Michigan’s crumbling roads — long the subject of jests, memes and most of all, pain — are now voters’ highest priority. And the future of the issue might depend on which candidates they choose in 2018.
According to a Marketing Resource Group poll released March 27, 49 percent of voters said Michigan’s roads were one of up to two issues they’re most concerned about. Education beat out jobs and the economy for second place.
The pollster said this is the first time in more than a decade the economy was not voters’ No. 1 concern.
Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, when Michigan will elect a new governor, some action has been taken: Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill providing an additional $175 million in road funding from Michigan’s general fund.
However, even with a $1.2 billion package signed by Snyder in 2015 that will continue to roll out in coming years, a nonpartisan commission convened by Snyder, the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, concluded in 2016 that Michigan will need an additional $4 billion in infrastructure funding, including $2.2 billion annually for roads, highways and bridges.
Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t see further changes to road funding or Michigan’s gas tax being made in an election year. Road funding has been a contentious issue in the past, Casperson said, so action might be postponed with legislators focused on their campaigns.
“You’re heading into the election season. I don’t think either side is gonna want to do that,” Casperson said. “In fact, I would argue that at this point a lot of people running for office are hoping that the $175 million and the extra money coming from the increases that were put in place start hitting the roadways, so people can see that they’re getting value for their money.”
A longstanding issue for road funding in Michigan is the state’s 6 percent sales tax, which also applies to fuel sales. According to the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for “smarter, simpler” tax policy, Michigan pays the fifth-highest gas tax in the country at 40.44 cents per gallon as of January 2017. According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, only a flat 26.3 cents per gallon of that is tax intended for road funding.
MDOT Director Kirk Steudle said Michigan collects about $1 billion a year in sales taxes on gas, but all that money is directed toward schools and cities by the Michigan Constitution. While not enough to meet the state’s projected funding needs, that revenue — if directed at road repair — would mark a significant increase.
“There will be the claim Michigan is a high gas-tax state, but you have to ask, ‘But, what about the sales tax? Who else includes sales tax?” Steudle said. “There’s only, I think, three or four states that collect sales tax on motor fuels.”
Steudle said a gas tax fix was on Snyder’s radar in 2011, and improvements were made as part of the 2015 package: The flat 19 cents per gallon gas tax and 15 cents per gallon diesel tax were raised to 26.3 cents per gallon, and the taxes were tied to inflation starting in 2022. However, Michiganders still pay a 6 percent sales tax on gas that does not help fund roads.
Casperson said he hasn’t heard of anyone trying to revisit the gas tax recently, but it’s been an issue he’s faced in the legislature since 2003. Casperson served in the House from 2002-08. He has served in the Senate since 2010.
“We could never come up with a consensus, and it didn’t seem to matter who was in charge,” Casperson said. “Whether the Democrats controlled things or the Republicans, neither side wanted to take it on.”
Casperson said the 2015 package was a good start but wasn’t quite what many people were hoping for.
“Our gas tax is high, but 6 percent of it is the lion’s share of the tax on gases and none of it is going to the roads,” Casperson said. “If we don’t deal with that for the future, I think it’s going to plague us continually.”