Fixing the Roads: The Issues, the Numbers, and Why Schools are Being Dragged Into the Mess

English: Southfield Michigan, skyline from the...A recent town hall meeting on road funding in Wexford County revealed a lot about the condition of our roads.  It also revealed the most likely scenario for funding ongoing road repairs.

County Road Association of Michigan Deputy Director Ed Noyola set the tone for the meeting by saying “your roads stink.”  Kelly Bartlett from the Department of Transportation (MDOT) later shared a statistic that seemed to contradict Barlett’s statement.  He said 87% of our roads are rated as “good or fair.” This seems to show that our roads are not as bad as advertised, even if they don’t meet the 90% mark the legislature prefers.  The tactic of overselling a problem has worked for Republicans in the past, so they are applying that strategy to this problem as well.

Certainly, we need more road funding.  It is true that taking care of a problem early helps stave off a bigger problem later.   We see that in education where investing in early childhood programs and public schools can help lower the likelihood that we have to pay for those children to go to prison later in life.

Representative Wayne Schmidt, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, seems to be the legislature’s point man for fixing the roads.  He said there are as many as 13 different proposals out there for funding road repairs and he came to the meeting hoping to get more solutions.  It is pretty clear which proposal is likely to go forward though based on the events from the meeting.  Schmidt said “we’re going to go to a wholesale gas tax.” Then he corrected himself and said “a wholesale gas tax is what we are proposing.”  He wants to implement the wholesale tax for both automobiles and airplanes.

The wholesale gas tax would replace the sales tax.  Currently, about 73% of the taxes on gas go to schools.  According to Schmidt, over $800 million dollars would be lost from the school aid fund if a wholesale tax were used instead.  The plan to replace that money is to add 1 cent to the sales tax, a plan that the voters would be asked to approve.

Representative Schmidt wouldn’t use the word guarantee when asked about the likelihood that schools would not lose money in this plan.  He instead said it his “pledge” that the “schools are kept whole.”  Schmidt was unwilling to define “schools” as K-12 public schools alone.  The exact definition of schools is important because last year Republicans took money out of the K-12 school fund to help pay for colleges.  They did this because proposal A, which changed how schools were funded in 1994, allowed for it though many believe that was never the intent of the law.   Senator Darwin Booher said that Schmidt’s plan would actual increase aid to schools by over 300 million dollars.

Using schools as bait to get more road funding just might work.  People seem pretty fed up about the disinvestment in public schools lead by Republicans who have a stranglehold on all branches of Michigan’s government.  The Republican plan, should it pass, would fix our roads, help our schools, and create jobs (yes the government can create jobs).  It sounds like a win-win right?  Not so fast.  The gas tax and sales taxes are regressive taxes.  The poor and middle class will feel the estimated 8 cents hike at the pump and a 1 cent hike at the cash register more than the wealthy will.  Michigan’s poor and middle class have already been disproportionately harmed by Governor Snyder’s tax policy.

Representative Schmidt was offered a 14th proposal.  I suggested the state institute a graduated state income like most states have.  Then the wealthiest Michiganders, like the Governor himself, would be asked to pay a little bit more.  Representative Schmidt, who is willing to push a bill that would allow the voters to decide on the gas tax, said that the citizens would have to take that issue up themselves.  His response was typical of the current Republican regime.  They want your ideas as long as they are the same as theirs.

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