House GOP counters Whitmer’s 45-cent fuel tax hike with scaled-back roads plan

By: - June 6, 2019 2:54 pm

Blue Water Bridge | City of Port Huron

Michigan House Republicans on Thursday released a plan to dedicate Michigan’s 6-percent sales tax on vehicle fuel to state roads. They also advanced a measure to look into the value of state assets that could be sold for road money, including the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

The plans constitute a GOP counterproposal to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 45-cent gas tax increase that would raise $2.5 billion annually for major state road repairs. Republicans suggested their plan would make sure that money meant to go to roads actually does.

State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) reiterated Thursday that he remains opposed to Whitmer’s fuel tax hike, despite the governor’s support for the top GOP priority of overhauling Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law.

Whitmer signed that legislation last week on Mackinac Island, flanked by smiling Republicans.

“The people of the state of Michigan cannot afford a 45-cent gas tax plan. And because of that, the people don’t support that,” Chatfield told reporters. “The House will not be passing her 45-cent gas tax hike.

“I don’t think the governor’s support of no-fault has changed any person’s mind in the state of Michigan on the 45-cent gas tax,” he added.

Matt Maddock

A state House subcommittee earlier on Thursday approved substitute language for House Bill 4246. The measure will now go to the full House Appropriations Committee and proposes using 4 percent of the 6 percent sales tax on fuel for roads in 2020. It would put the full amount toward roads the year after that.

It’s projected to raise $542 million in fiscal year 2020 and then $830 million in fiscal year 2021 — far short of the more than $2 billion experts say is needed to fix Michigan’s infrastructure.

“We cannot start preparing for a road repair plan simply by reaching into taxpayers’ wallets for more money,” state House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee Chair Matt Maddock (R-Milford) said in a statement.

Maddock said the Republican proposal “gives us a firm footing to put together an effective roads plan by making sure every single penny spent on taxes at the gas pump goes to improve our roads — including the 6 percent sales tax motorists already pay.”

Rep. Shane Hernandez at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

House Appropriations Committee Chair Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) said this is not Republicans’ final roads plan. He said the shifts they have proposed are meant to advance the conversation.

The measure also included placeholder language to require the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to develop a plan by March 1, 2020, to solicit proposals for the sale “of the state’s interest in the Blue Water Bridge,” among other state assets.

MDOT does not currently know how much the Port Huron bridge is worth. It is jointly owned by Michigan and Canada, and the United States’ outstanding debt on the bridge is $89.7 million, according to department spokesman Tim Fischer. The final payment is set for 2037, Fischer said.

Port Huron City Manager James Freed told the Advance that the Blue Water Bridge is “incredibly important” for the city’s economy because it facilitates trade between Michigan and Canada. He said he was concerned when he saw news stories suggesting that Republicans were planning to sell the bridge.

Blue Water Bridge | City of Port Huron

But Freed said he’s less concerned after speaking with Hernandez, who explained the plan so far is just to inquire about the potential value of the bridge.

He said he would have appreciated a heads-up, however.

“I don’t like finding out about things in Lansing from news reporters calling me in the middle of the afternoon,” Freed said, adding that he received calls “from every major news outlet in the state” in the span of about 10 minutes.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.