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Why a road funding deal remains elusive in Lansing

Updated story 4:38 PM:

So, there’s definitely no deal on road funding.

The state House and Senate floor managers have let it be known there will be no attendance taken and no roll call votes this week. After that the Michigan Legislature is on a break until mid-August.

Original story 8:51 AM:

Lawmakers will be back in Lansing this week with pretty much just one thing on their to-do list: Road funding.

It’s been four and a half years that lawmakers have been working toward a plan, culminating, most recently, in May with the embarrassing defeat of Proposal One, the ballot proposal that would have increased the state’s sales tax by one penny in order to pay for roads.

Since then, there seemed to have been a lot of pressure for the Legislature and Governor Snyder to get something done. Quickly.

But, a lot of that momentum seems to have dissipated, at least for the summer, especially now that the state House and Senate have passed plans of their own.

And, it’s becoming clear, very few people actually think the two Legislative chambers will come to a deal this summer.

An elusive deal

There are many reasons it’s been difficult for lawmakers to find a road funding solution. One of the first issues: we’re not even sure what a deal is supposed to look like. The House and Senate plans are really far apart, especially on fuel taxes.

There are Republicans in the state Legislature who have signed anti-tax pledges. They will simply not vote to raise taxes. No matter what.

With that fact, there’s the question of whether or not Republicans have enough votes within their own caucus to raise new revenue for roads. If they don’t have the votes, will they decide to turn to Democrats? If they do, what will the Democrats ask for in return for their support of a GOP plan?

So far, Democrats have yet to be really brought into the negotiations. If and when that happens, it all takes on a new dimension; every concession by the GOP leadership will have to win more votes from the other side than they lose among their own.

Complicating factors

There are other reasons a roads deal has been so difficult, some of them principled reasons, some political. Two Republican state senators, for example, will likely face each other in a GOP primary next year for an open congressional seat. Do either of them really want their vote to be the one that raises taxes?

Moreover, if one of them wins the Congressional seat, there will be House members looking to run in a special election for the open state Senate seat. Those House members will also be wondering how votes on transportation funding might be used against them in a primary or general election.

It wasn’t that easy in the past either  

We should also note that the issue of raising money for roads has always been tough. That’s why we go roughly 20 years between the Legislature voting on gas tax increases. This one, you can’t just entirely blame on term-limits.

A lot of this also depends on Governor Rick Snyder and his ability to lead. Does he have the capacity to prod the GOP-led Legislature, especially the Republican leadership, into action?

This is not a pushy governor. In fact, what did Snyder say recently about a road funding deal after four years of negotiations? “Let’s sit down and talk and find common ground and get something done.”

Whether or not the Legislature can do that remains to be seen.

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.
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