Meloni: Possibly, finally, a Michigan road funding fix?


LANSING, Mich. – To the world, "Pure Michigan" means enviably gorgeous sandy beaches, panoramic views of world class golf courses and Currier and Ives quality sleigh rides all narrated to the dulcet tones of native comedian Tim Allen.

Michigan looks its most beautiful there, and it is a true picture. But for those of us who live in the state, we know there is another picture, one you won't see in a Pure Michigan ad: A picturesque Michigan roadbed.

There aren't many. Most Michigan roads are scared beyond recognition, often with bus-sized chuck holes like we saw on I-75 Monday just outside downtown Detroit (calling them potholes would understate the matter). They eat steel belted tires and bend aluminum rims with abandon, sending repair shop cash registers ringing from border to border on a daily basis.

This is Michigan at its worst, and the sad part about it is the Legislature has somehow successfully kicked the can down the washboard-like streets for generations. The problem, of course, is that over half a century, most of the money collected in gasoline and road taxes isn't dedicated to the roads themselves, but to a line item broadly known as "transportation." Roads end up last in line for the money.

The Legislature knows that after last May's landslide defeat on a road funding ballot proposal, it needs to do something sooner rather than later. Well, after a long summer of longer and very involved talks, there is now, finally, some movement.

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Rick Snyder opened his Capitol Dome office and power pow-wowed with his closest advisors Dick Posthumus, Rich Baird, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and the legislative leadership from both sides of the aisle. House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills, Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich, Republican Senate Leader Arlan Meekhoff and House Speaker Kevin Cotter were also involved.

This was a first-of-its-kind road funding meeting that shows that, while there are a number of differing ideas on the table, it's looking like a deal is closer than not.

You'll remember that the House Republicans want to raise more than a billion dollars without a tax hike and simply take the cash from cutting other line items in the massive Michigan budget. The Senate Republicans want to rearrange the way gasoline and diesel fuel are taxed at the $700 million and then split the difference to $1.2 billion with other budget cuts.

It's a wide gulf, and there is a strong, entrenched belief on both sides of the aisle that the ideas on the table don't work. Many anti-tax Republicans, Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat (who now have major problems of their own after their affair was exposed) in particular, say raising a dime in taxes is too much.

Then, on the other side, there is Democratic House Leader Tim Greimel, who told me today that "the House Democratic caucus is very unified in our view that the Republican plans are unrealistic, fiscally irresponsible and do not present a sustainable long term solution."

Essentially, he is telling Republicans ‘don't come looking to us for votes.' Greimel and the Democratic caucus are now backing a ballot proposal that is taking shape and, if passed, would require a tax hike on Michigan businesses as an alternative to a gasoline tax hike. Gov. Snyder said Tuesday that that would be a bad idea for the Michigan economy and appears moved by that action to do what he can to head off that vote.

So, there are probably half a dozen different proposals on the table that would bridge the gap. The most popular plan, and certainly the most talked about behind the scenes, would raise the gasoline tax five cents a gallon, raising $600 million annually. A proposed $600 million in budget cuts would go along with that.

Democrats are looking to force Republicans to specify exactly what cuts they would make as they very much want to put fences around their most precious programs. Republicans may have to give in for one simple reason: They need 55 votes, and right now, various Legislative sources tell me they only have 46. That's a long Michigan throughway to 55.

So, how do you get there?

Lansing sources today told Local 4 News that throughway may very well go right through downtown Detroit. Here's how: Mayor Mike Duggan has gotten involved in this negotiation. He sees Detroit's post-bankruptcy budget requirements and transportation needs as a good bargaining chip. One of the things Detroit has always struggled with is collecting the fees and taxes it is owed. Millions upon millions of dollars simply weren't collected because the city couldn't afford to go after them.

For instance, one of the groups is Detroit City Residents who work outside the city. They are supposed to pay 3 percent city income tax, 1.5 percent for living in the city and 1.5 percent for working outside the city. But most suburban businesses don't collect the tax from their Detroit-based employees and the city never sees the cash.

Detroit-based businesses usually collect the money for the city right off the top and send it in. Duggan has convinced Republican State Rep. Al Pscholka of Stevensville, MI, to draw up a bill that would force suburban businesses to collect those taxes for the city.

It's in committee and a vote is expected Wednesday morning on whether or not to send it on to the House.

Duggan is also looking for Legislative authority to use 20 percent of Detroit's road funding for mass transit in the city, knowing that DDOT is a mess and needs massive amounts of money to get moving in a better direction.

Legislative sources tell me that if those deals can be made, Duggan would push the Detroit delegation to support the road funding fix the governor cobbles together. If this Rube Goldberg style deal can be cut, that's the nine votes the House Republicans need to pull the roads bill over the finish line.

Of course, the biggest problem with this kind of legislative sausage is that it's as delicate as a fall snowflake. It can melt as quickly as it touches the ground. Nothing is assured, but the governor sure seemed encouraged about the idea. I asked him about this in the hallway outside his office Tuesday afternoon after his power meeting and he said, "the good part is, it's interesting to see, I think, the Detroit caucus has an interest in a solution for roads and the mayor has an interest in better transportation solutions for the city."

So, again, not just Detroit, but also other cities, are involved and contributing thoughts and ideas that could be a solution. The governor says many of the other cities are looking for some goodies, a side-deal of their own that could lead to a road funding fix.

"There is positive progress, which I would define as momentum towards a solution," Gov. Snyder said. "But there is still a lot of work to be done."

So, it's deal-cutting time in Lansing. The governor says he doesn't use the word horse-trading, but let's face it, horse-trading it is!

We will see how this all shakes out as we continue our coverage in Lansing Wednesday.

Might a Michigan road make it into a Pure Michigan ad some day soon? Let's not get carried away here, give that a few years.

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