Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday called for raising an additional $1.2 billion a year to patch up Michigan's ailing roads and bridges, describing the higher taxes and fees that would be required as investments that would provide long-term savings for motorists.
Generating new money for Michigan's transportation network was the centerpiece of Snyder's third annual State of the State address, delivered to a joint session of the state Legislature in the Capitol. The Republican governor sought support from both parties midway through a turbulent term in which he has pleased business interests but alienated Democrats and organized labor with tax relief for corporations and measures that have weakened unions' powers.
Snyder provided few details in his nearly hour-long speech, which also touched on education, insurance reform and a variety of other issues. But in a briefing for reporters beforehand, senior policy adviser Bill Rustem said Snyder favored replacing the tax on fuels paid at the pump with a levy at the wholesale level, which could be passed on to consumers and rise with inflation. He also supports raising the annual motor vehicle registration fee and allowing local governments to increase it even further to raise money for fixing local roads, Rustem said.
Instead of proposing specific tax and fee increases, Snyder tried to make the case for raising the money in the first place — which could be a tough sell in a legislature led by tax-averse Republicans and with Democrats still resentful over his last-minute embrace of contentious right-to-work legislation last month.
"We need to invest more in our roads ... it's time," he said, arguing that while his plan would cost about $120 per vehicle, motorists would recoup most of that by having lower repair bills as highways and local roads are improved. "This is not about costing us money. It is about saving us money and building for the future."
He appealed to legislators — all of whom will be up for re-election in 2014, as will Snyder — to put political considerations aside, acknowledging that his road program "will go nowhere" otherwise. Instead, he said they should approach the matter as a family would, putting long-term needs first.
"We can decide how long we want to argue about it, how political we want to make it, or we can just use some common sense and get it done," he said.
Michigan's retail-level motor fuels tax has been stuck since 1997 at 19 cents per gallon for gasoline and 15 cents per gallon for diesel fuel.
Aides acknowledged it would be difficult to win approval in a legislature where tax-averse Republicans are in the majority, but said the state has no other choice as it seeks to attract new businesses and jobs. Studies show that if nothing is done to generate more funds to fix potholes and repair bridges, 65 percent of Michigan's roads will be in poor condition by 2020, Rustem said.
Elsewhere, Snyder was calling for an array of new initiatives dealing with education, the environment and the economy.
He proposed moving more state social workers into troubled elementary schools, reforming Michigan's no-fault auto insurance program, establishing an agency to crack down on insurance fraud, and improving mental health services.
Snyder also voiced regret about the bruising legislative battles of 2012, when thousands of angry demonstrators protested the Legislature's quick approval of right-to-work measures making it illegal to require non-union workers to pay fees to the unions that negotiate their wages.
"I hope we can work together," he said, promising "to work hard to find common ground."
But Democrats criticized what they described as a lack of meaningful details in his speech. And several hundred protesters clustered near the main entrance of the Capitol, beating drums and chanting, "Liar." A banner stretched across the stone stairway read, "You can't trust Snyder."
Dem leader: Snyder's 1st 2 years `disappointment'
The leader of minority Democrats in the Michigan Senate says Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has been a "disappointment" in his first two years, favoring big business with large tax cuts while placing burdens on the middle class and ignoring the needs of the general public.
Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing delivered the Democratic response to Snyder's State of the State address Wednesday night.
Whitmer says Snyder has disinvested in schools, hurting children and sending a message to employers that Michigan doesn't care about education.
She says Snyder should work across the aisle and cooperate with Democrats in the state Legislature. Republicans now control both the House and Senate.