Republican Road Funding Plan Deals Another Blow to Democracy

FILE - In this July 19, 2013, file photo, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder speaks during a news conference in Detroit. State lawmake
FILE - In this July 19, 2013, file photo, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder speaks during a news conference in Detroit. State lawmakers and governors are trying to distance themselves from the federal government shutdown in case angry voters decide to hold politicians everywhere responsible. In Michigan, Snyder, who fought tough battles over fiscal issues with Democrats in the GOP-controlled legislature, made his state?s budget negotiating process sound like a high school civics class. His advice to his federal counterparts: ?Stop blaming, stop taking credit, get in a room, solve the problem and keep moving forward.?(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

For more than a decade now, the Michigan Legislature has failed to properly fund the Department of Transportation, which has resulted in a steady decline in the quality of Michigan's roads.

The Michigan Senate agreed on bipartisan legislation to address this issue, which Gov. Rick Snyder supports. But Speaker of the House Jase Bolger is concerned that the Senate plan would increase taxes, and increasing taxes is something that the Michigan Republican Party doesn't approve of -- unless you are a retiree, poor, a homeowner or any of the other 50 percent of Michiganians who have seen their taxes increase under Bolger's watch.

The real problem with Bolger's plan is the shell game required to generate the funds for fixing Michigan's roads. Instead of increasing fuel taxes as Snyder had proposed, Bolger wants to raid education funding to the tune of $800 million to pay for roads. A spokesman for Bolger says there is nothing to worry about, because the bill also includes wording that suggests education funding can't be reduced.

Given that it has taken over a decade of constant decline to get the Legislature to find the funds to repair Michigan's roads, trusting that it will magically find additional revenue to plug the gaping hole in education spending that this action would create is suspect at best.

Bolger's office also says that increased revenue will cover any potential losses. Problem is that when the former director of the Michigan House Fiscal Agency, Mitch Bean, examined the real world results of Bolger's plan, he found that the biggest loses occurred in the last few years when Michigan was supposedly making its comeback, while one of the few years in which revenue would have actually increased occurred in the middle of the Great Recession. The data suggests Bolger's plan is more wishful thinking than thoroughly vetted economic strategy.

Of course even if you believe Jase Bolger's understanding of economics is better than that of Mitch Bean, it should be noted that relying on increased revenue can have damaging consequences. For example, one of the only reasons Snyder can claim to have increased education spending over his time in office is because of the money he poured into the teacher pension program. Were it not for pervious administration's errant assumptions that the economy would improve because of their efforts, these extra contributions to the system would likely have been unnecessary.

Maybe the economy will continue to improve. Maybe it won't. Jase Bolger doesn't own a crystal ball and wagering education funding on the promise of Republican governance can't be very reassuring to many Michigan parents.

There are also those, such as State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, who believe the government already has enough money and just needs to shift it around.

But if that is the case, why divert money that is dedicated to education to fund the roads, only to have to find another budgetary item to cut to make up for the lost education dollars? If you are going to cut the $2 billion Department of Corrections budget to pay for Michigan schools why not just leave school funding alone and increase road spending at the expense of the DOC? Only a person with ulterior motives would make this funding change so convoluted.

Not surprisingly it appears that eliminating the fuel tax that currently funds education is a workaround to Proposal A, the voter approved constitutional amendment that equalized education funding two decades ago.

By changing the fuel charge from a tax on consumers to a fee on suppliers, this money will no longer be subject to the rules of Proposal A. This is the same kind of subverting the people's wishes that Republicans pulled when voters repealed the state Emergency Manger Law, only to see the Republicans pass new version a few months later that was no longer subject to a voter referendum. Based on the manipulative past of this Legislature you can bet this won't be the last time Bolger and his cohorts redefine a sales tax as a "fee" to avoid properly funding Michigan's public schools.

Having said that the entire basis for Bolger's actions demonstrate just how disconnected he is from the average Michigan voter. Polls show that 62% of voters were willing to pay an additional $10 or more per month to repair and upgrade bridges and roads in Michigan, while 71% said they would not vote against an elected official for such a tax increase. Voters just don't have the same doomsday view of tax increases that Republicans pretend they do.

Polls also show that while Michigan voters would really like to see more money go towards roads, their top priority is education funding. This makes the Bolger plan that much more perplexing, especially given the fact that the real per pupil foundation allowance has fallen by $648 under Republican control. Is taking another $475 per student away from public schools just a ploy to put more districts in financial distress so they can be converted to for-profit charter schools that big donors love?

The reality is that Jase Bolger has taken a bipartisan bill to improve Michigan's roads that had the support of voters and turned it into something that cuts education funding, vitiates the will of the people, and Gov. Snyder has "serious reservations" about, all under the guise of a rigid ideology the majority of Michigan residents disagree with. It is the latest and hopefully last example of Bolger's pattern of using nefarious tactics to avoid the will of the people and spit in the face of the voting public. No wonder Bolger waited until after the election to bring his "plan" to the floor.