91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Here’s why the state Senate couldn’t pass road funding

"Unfortunately, this is an issue that I would admit there are too much politics going on." That was Gov. Rick Snyder last night, after it became clear that a major roads funding package was not going to get passed in the state Senate.

"...If we were sitting at the kitchen table as a big family,” he continued, “and you looked at this issue, we would have solved this problem.”

Sure. Or our big family would fight about who wrecked the roads in the first place and that it was your fault – you and your big truck – which is why we can’t have nice roads and don’t you know I have a primary and, by the way, I haven’t forgotten who wrecked the roads that you won’t fix because you should.

But, we digress.

There were a lot of reasons why this road-funding deal failed to come together, despite some recent instances of actual bipartisanship, like increasing the state’s minimum wage and the Detroit rescue package. But those were exceptions in this era of Republican hegemony in Lansing.

Put simply, too many Republicans were not willing to vote for new taxes to pay for road funding. Not in an election year. Not before their primaries.

And, Democrats, if they were going to vote for taxes, weren’t going to vote for the ones Republicans were offering – revenue in the form of user fees like fuel taxes or maybe raising the sales tax. Democrats say those options are too regressive. Democrats also say if the business sector wants roads fixed so badly, maybe the business sector should pay for it with a higher corporate income tax. Or, make heavy trucks pay more for using the roads.

Those ideas were all non-starters for Republicans. And, besides, say the Democrats to the Republicans, why should we vote for taxes if you won’t? And, all of this, of course, to the consternation and frustration of the usually quite effective business lobby that’s put so much into getting new revenue for roads.

Meantime, as things got tougher for Gov. Snyder and Republican leaders, it allowed Democrats to up the ante. Their “asks” got bigger – more tax breaks for lower-income families, that Republicans promise hands-off the state’s prevailing wage law, and no tinkering with how Michigan’s 16 electoral votes are allocated (as we talked about last week, this is a Republican plan that could end the Democrats’ Michigan winning streak in presidential elections. That plan could get rolled out during the “lame duck” session after the election). At one point, some unions and Democrats even put – or tried to put – on the table essentially rolling back the right-to-work law.

Republicans are somewhat victims of their own success here. For most of the past three and a half years, they’ve been able to get their way without having to ask Democrats for votes. It’s not always good to be the king.

Democrats are making hay over this failure to pass new road funding as a “failure of leadership.”

So now the lawmakers are on their summer break and Gov. Snyder is hoping voters back home will do what he couldn’t: convince them to vote for road money.

But, we should point out that even though there is a big public clamor to fix the roads, it doesn’t necessarily extend to raising taxes to fix the roads. The public opinion research is mixed, at best, and suggests the public is at least skeptical that new taxes are needed, that it can’t be done with existing revenue.

So if Gov. Snyder and business interests want road revenue, they are probably going to have to convince Republican lawmakers that they need to get ahead of public opinion.

And they need to convince them of that in an election year.

Of course, maybe their prospects improve after the August primaries.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
Related Content