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Road plan is a cynical insult to intelligence

Jack Lessenberry

Well, as you probably know, the legislature has still done virtually nothing to fix the roads. Once again, the State Senate and House have passed wildly different plans.

The Senate bill is honest enough to include some new revenue, which it would get largely by raising the tax on fuel. But it also calls for cutting Michigan’s already bare-bones general fund by $700 million a year, without saying where the cuts would come from.

If tied to badly needed prison reform, that might make some sense. There’s plenty of evidence that the state could save possibly hundreds of millions a year by releasing thousands of inmates who are no longer a danger to anyone. But politics being what they are, my guess is that those cuts would instead come where we can least afford it – education.

But if the Senate plan is badly flawed, the House plan is a cynical insult to the intelligence.

It would start out by bizarrely punishing both business and the working poor, by cutting economic development funds and eliminating the last vestiges of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

After that, the House plan relies on the hope of getting road money from rising tax receipts being swelled by future economic growth, in what looks like a bizarre homage to the long-discredited Laffer curve fantasy of the early 1980s. Next week, when House members return from vacation, we may learn if there is any possibility of an intelligent compromise. But most people I talk to aren’t hopeful. Part of the problem is this: Every House seat is up for election next year; Senators don’t have to worry about reelection until 2018.

Most senators, in fact, don’t have to worry about it at all. Nineteen of the twenty-seven Republicans are term-limited, and can therefore afford to be a bit more statesman-like. You might think the House members would be under pressure to do the right thing and fix the roads, since that’s what the voters plainly want.

But you would be wrong. Thanks to outrageous gerrymandering, most of them don’t have to care, because they represent safe one-party districts.

Most are worried only about a primary challenge from even more militant anti-tax fanatics. That’s how broken our system is. Twenty years ago, lawmakers would have gotten around this by raising the gas tax and calling it a “user fee.”

But we are in a far more irrational world. What may bother me most, however, is not the broken system or the behavior of our so-called representatives. It is that the public seems increasingly resigned to the idea that we can do nothing to fix this.

Yesterday a woman from Ypsilanti wrote that she totally agreed with what I said about the effects of gerrymandering, but said she was convinced that the powers that be would somehow manage to block any attempt at reform. Last week, a blogger on the public affairs TV show Off the Record said we were just going to have to accept that we will always be a state with bad roads, just like Floridians have to get used to it being hot in the summer.

If we truly believe that, it means we’ve given up on representative democracy. And that may be the scariest consequence of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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