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‘Kicking the can down the road’ might be part of road funding solution

Another road funding plan is moving in Lansing but, after four years of debate, one has to wonder: has a real solution become an impossible dream?

In the state Legislature, the Senate now has the House plan. The House has the Senate plan. But, even though it’s Republicans calling the shots in Lansing, Republicans can’t agree on what to do about fixing the roads.

Majority rules

This is all about Lansing’s cardinal rule of political math. And that is the principal of 56-19-and-one.

Typically, it takes 56 votes - just over half of the state House’s 110 lawmakers - to get anything through that chamber; 19 votes to a majority in the Senate, and almost anything you want to do has to also get past one person: the governor.

Three vacancies in the House have played with the numbers a bit so, right now, it’s 55 to get a House majority, but the principal still applies. More broadly, it means you’ve got to get a lot of people to agree to get anything done. And, right now, there is no consensus when it comes to how to fund road repairs.

Little consensus

Efforts to forge bipartisan solutions have collapsed and efforts to bring together enough Republicans have met the same fate.

The Senate Republican plan relies more on hikes in fuel taxes and registration fees than budget cuts to reach that magic $1.2 billion number that most everyone agrees is the bare minimum that’s needed annually to fix roads. The fuel tax and fee hikes, budget cuts, and tax reductions (added to sweeten the deal for tax-averse lawmakers) would happen in fairly short order.

But, to get to a majority in the House, Republican leaders went with more budget cuts and smaller revenue hikes that take longer to go in affect.

State Representative Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) says that’s why Democrats won’t go along:

“This bill kicks the can further and further down the road. When does the revenue start showing up? This plan isn’t fully phased in until 2021.Is there anybody who’s elected here as a state Representative now that will still be here in 2021? No way. This is set up so it doesn’t take effect until everybody here now is long-gone.”

The time-honored tactic of voting now to do it later can have dire consequences.

Kicking the can…

In the 1990s, when John Engler was governor, he made it a point of pride to push a tax cut every year. But eventually, even in the go-go 1990s, that became unworkable. At a certain point, the budget couldn’t handle any more tax cuts and the loss of revenue.

So, Engler proposed income tax rollbacks that would play out years after he left office. The Legislature adopted them at the time, but it blasted holes in the budget. Later, when the economy tanked,  that made it only more difficult for the Legislature to reverse those decisions.

As a result, Michigan had semi-shutdowns of state government in 2007 and 2009 when Republicans in the Legislature and a Democratic governor couldn’t agree on either cuts or new revenue to balance the budget.

Take it as a cautionary tale. Sometimes, the smart political move is vote now to solve it later. But, eventually, later always rolls around.

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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