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The House should pass an honest bill to raise gas tax, registration fees

You’ve probably heard that the state Senate passed a bill last week that would finally raise some significant money to fix Michigan’s terrible roads. Most of us who ever have to leave the house and drive were happy about this.

For years, the roads have gotten worse, and our lawmakers have done virtually nothing about them.

However, there are a number of important things to know about this bill and this issue. First of all, this is not a done deal. The state House of Representatives won’t even take this up until next month. While there is a lot of pressure to do something about the roads, there is no guarantee they will pass the Senate bill in its present form – or indeed, pass any bill at all.

But here’s something else you may not have read elsewhere. The bill passed by the Senate is really a pretty lousy way of coming up with money for road repair. The formula it uses is very hard to understand, and provides no guaranteed amount.

What Gov. Rick Snyder proposed, and what usually happens when more road repair money is needed, is that lawmakers raise the gas tax by a certain number of cents on the gallon. Driving habits vary, but not by very much.

Transportation experts can calculate pretty closely how much new revenue, say, a 10-cent-a-gallon increase would bring. But that’s not what the Senate is proposing.

They would stop taxing fuel on a per- gallon basis, and replace that with a new tax on the wholesale price of gasoline and diesel fuel. This would gradually rise to 15.5% three years from now.

How much money would this provide? Well, nobody can say. A year ago, that wholesale price was approaching three dollars a gallon. Today, it is only about $2.20, which is why gas is so comparatively cheap right now.

That was great for me when I filled up my station wagon this morning. But under the new formula, lower gas prices would mean significantly less money for the roads. And they fall apart at the same pace regardless of the price at the pump.

Why did the Senate do it this way? Well, the leadership didn’t confide in me, but I think I know.

It gives the politicians more political cover. Nobody will be able to point a finger and say:

“Senator Susie Schmo raised the gas tax twenty cents a gallon.”

Anyone who tries to explain what she did vote for may put the confused voters to sleep. Other than that, this bill is flawed for another reason. It won’t provide enough money to do what needs to be done, especially now.

Three years ago, the Legislature was eager to slash taxes and education spending to attract business to the state. Well, we can’t do that with our roads and bridges falling apart.

The state House should pass an honest bill raising the gas tax and registration fees, especially for the big trucks that are grinding our roads to gravel.

This should be a bill that is fair, makes sense, and is easy for people to understand. If that makes me a hopeless idealist … I plead guilty.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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