Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Jan. 30, 2019 | Susan J. Demas
Roads have been now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature issue since the 2018 campaign — and after a year of tangling with the GOP-led Legislature, she’s found a short-term solution.
Her $3.5 billion road bonding plan unanimously passed the state Transportation Commission in a meeting Thursday morning — one week before she’s slated to announce her plan for next year’s budget.
The Legislature doesn’t get sign off, which hasn’t gone over well with Republican leaders. State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) on Thursday called her “Rebuilding Michigan” plan “hypocritical,” as Whitmer last year rejected their short-term ideas.
As she did in her State of the State speech, Whitmer told reporters Thursday that road bonds are a stopgap measure and the onus is on the Legislature.
“It’s not long-term funding and as you know, the ball is in the Legislature’s court on coming up with some long-term funding,” Whitmer said. “We need to get to work right now.”
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will now be able to spend $7.3 billion over five years — almost doubled the planned $3.8 billion. In total, 122 new road projects will be added or expanded under the plan.
The bonding plan was endorsed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business lobby frequently aligned with the Republican Party that has endorsed the “user fee” concept to inject more funds into infrastructure.
“The best way to fix the roads is for lawmakers to pass a compressive, long term solution,” CEO Rich Studley wrote on Twitter Thursday morning. “That didn’t happen in 2019. In 2020 we need less talk/more action. Therefore, the Chamber supports the Governor’s plan to use transportation bonds to rebuild state roads & critical bridges.”
Last year was defined by a partisan clash over the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, with Republicans firmly against Whitmer’s 45-cent gas tax hike plan to raise $2.5 billion annually for roads.
Her road bonding plan takes some of the pressure off to reach a comprehensive deal — but Whitmer also shouldn’t face retaliation over next year’s budget. As part of a deal inked in December — more than two months after the FY 2020 budget went into effect on Oct. 1 — the Legislature has to present the governor with negotiated budgets by July 1.
“From now on, when people see an orange barrel on a state road, they’re going to know that this administration is fixing the damn road,” Whitmer said. “As I said before, if the Legislature won’t come to the table, I’m going to still roll up my sleeves and get to work.”
Asked if she would propose a long-term roads solution this year, Whitmer replied, “I did. A year ago. And nothing was done in the Legislature. And so I’m not going to be here just to play games. I want to get things done. We’re going to move forward on this plan in hopes that the Legislature eventually comes to the table with a solution.”
Whitmer also rejected the Republican criticism that she took a my-way-or-the-highway approach to her gas tax increase proposal last year.
“Contrary to what’s been stated, I’ve never said it’s this or nothing,” she said. “I’ve never said that. In fact, even the day that I introduced it — almost a year ago — I said, ‘I’m putting this solution on the table because I ran on fixing this problem, and this is what it’s going to take. I am absolutely happy to sit down with anyone who wants to have an honest conversation about a serious alternative.’”
The Advance asked the governor if there’s anything Republicans could propose that is off the table with her.
“As I said [Wednesday], anything that creates more problems than it solves, I don’t think is a serious solution,” Whitmer said. “So a few ideas were bandied about in a very informal way last year. No one actually wrote up a plan, announced it publicly and held it up to scrutiny.”
Of a GOP idea to sell teacher pension bonds, Whitmer said, “I don’t consider a serious solution” because it’s not a dedicated funding source. She added that “you’re stealing from a different side of the two crises that we’re confronting in the state” — schools.
As for Chatfield’s idea to decouple gas purchases from the state’s 6% sales tax, Whitmer said that school funding would “absolutely” have to be held harmless.
“We’re not trying to create another problem and pretend that we’re solving this road crisis,” she said.
The bonds will be paid back over the course of 25 years at interest rates around 2.5% to 3.5%, MDOT Chief Administrative Officer Laura Mester said Thursday. The bonds will be paid back via funds from the license vehicle registry, but the state has no plans to increase those fees.
Several Republicans have blasted bonding as fiscally irresponsible. But Whitmer argued that low interest rates make this an ideal time for her plan.
“This is the smartest way to go about doing it,” she said. “So over the long haul we believe we will actually be saving money as a result of this.”
Many of the projects are clustered in metro Detroit, where Michigan’s population base lives. Whitmer was asked about those in rural areas who might not see as much of an impact in terms of road projects, but will have to help pay off the debt.
“I would say call your legislators and tell them to get serious about a plan that is comprehensive. This plan will improve roads in every part of the state. It’s not about one area or another,” she said. “This is about managing an asset on which we all rely on, which our economy relies [on].
“… This is akin to taking out a mortgage to build a new roof. Sometimes for long term investments, the wisest thing you can do is lock in a low interest rate and actually fix the problem — and that’s what we are doing.”
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