Democratic Michigan governor, GOP leaders will proceed on budget without road fix

FILE - In this Feb. 12, 2019 file photo, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich. Whitmer's proposal to significantly increase fuel taxes to fix the roads is paired with another politically difficult plan, overhauling how Michigan divvies up what would be $2.1 billion. (AP Photo/Al Goldis, File)
Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer previously said she would not sign a budget without a road-funding deal. But she and GOP leaders have been unable to agree on an alternative after her proposed 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike was declared dead following its unveiling in March. (Associated Press: AL GOLDIS)

LANSING, Mich. — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders said Monday that they will work to enact a state budget without including a long-term funding plan to fix Michigan’s deteriorating roads.

The agreement likely forestalls the possibility of an October 1 partial government shutdown. But it also strips the first-year governor of leverage as she seeks a nearly $2 billion influx of new spending on road and bridge construction in a state that ranks second to last nationally in per-capita road spending.

Whitmer previously said she would not sign a budget without a road-funding deal. But she and GOP leaders have been unable to agree on an alternative after her proposed 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike was declared dead following its unveiling in March. She warns that without a major investment, the number of roads in poor condition will double, from 22% to 44%, in the next five years.

Whitmer said “some legislators” in the GOP-controlled Legislature want a shutdown of state government for “political reasons” and are unwilling to get serious about addressing the road-funding problem. Republicans based many of their counterproposals — which they kept private — on ending the sales tax on fuel and passing an equivalent per-gallon gasoline tax increase, which would boost roads but reduce revenue for schools and municipalities. Whitmer rejected the concept.

“I don’t view a shutdown as a game. I don’t view it as something that is just a leverage point. I view it as something that’s very serious that would have ramifications for our state,” she said after speaking to the Grand Rapids Economic Club. “That’s why, as the adult in the room, I said it’s time to focus on getting a good budget done. One way or another, we’re going to fix the roads in Michigan.”

Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering agreed over the weekend to immediately begin working to set spending targets for the budget year that starts October 1.

“We have all agreed to continue conversations about road funding in a meaningful way and table all associated issues for the time being,” they said in a joint statement. “Right now, our number one priority is getting a budget passed. We look forward to rolling up our sleeves and negotiating on behalf of the people of Michigan.”

The announcement came days after Republicans internally agreed to their own spending levels and scheduled several House-Senate conference committee meetings for later this week, without input from Whitmer — setting the stage for a potential veto showdown this month. Whitmer, who campaigned on a pledge to fix the roads, previously accused GOP leaders of leading the state toward a “Trump-style shutdown” and on Monday said she is determined to ensure that Michigan is not dysfunctional like Washington, D.C.

Rep. Jason Sheppard, a Temperance Republican, criticized Whitmer’s comments.

“We put solution after solution on the negotiating table and all we got from the governor’s office was more inflammatory public statements and press conferences,” he said.

Lawmakers and the governor have three weeks to finalize a $60 billion budget. Key issues to be resolved include settling how much should go to roads in the coming year and funding schools, which have been operating since July without knowing their state aid.

“I agree with the decision to discuss a long-term strategy for road repairs separately from the upcoming state budget, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore short-term steps we can take to improve our roads right away,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Shane Hernandez, a Port Huron Republican.

Whitmer’s K-12 proposal would pump $523 million, or 4%, more into the school budget, not including federal dollars. Funding would rise between nearly $200 million and $392 million under House and Senate proposals, or 1.3% and 3%.

Whitmer also has called for shifting to a “weighted” funding formula to account for extra costs to educate certain students, but neither the Senate nor House embraced the concept in budget blueprints they adopted in May and June.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig, whose Democratic caucus never embraced increasing the 26-cents-a-gallon gas tax to 71 cents, said Whitmer should create a bipartisan task force to propose long-term road-funding solutions. House Democrats have suggested boosting the corporate income tax and assessing extra taxes and tolls on heavy trucks, while business leaders who supported Whitmer’s 45-cent plan have noted that companies would pay more under a gas tax hike.

“We’ve got to have other ideas at the table for addressing roads,” said Greig, who said Republicans did not offer a viable road-funding proposal. GOP legislators have in turn accused Whitmer of proposing an unrealistic tax hike she had to know would not pass muster with the public.


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