Four years ago, I went to see Mark Schauer, then the Democratic nominee for governor. He had rightly criticized the Republicans for letting the roads fall apart, and vowed to fix them.
But when I asked how he was going to get the money for that, he really didn’t have an answer. My guess was that he didn’t want to risk losing votes by saying he was going to raise taxes. I left wondering if he deserved to win.
And guess what: He didn’t. Two years later, Hillary Clinton, like Schauer, ran a campaign that was heavy on attacking a deeply flawed opponent and light on giving people something to actually vote for. We are living with the consequences.
Well, yesterday, Gretchen Whitmer did something that very much impressed me: She unveiled an actual concrete plan to rebuild our infrastructure – not just the roads -- with dollar figures attached. She pledged to ask the legislature to come up with $3 billion dollars and put it in a State Infrastructure Bank, something that already exists, though there’s not much in it.
If the legislature refused to fund the bank, she said, “I would go straight to the people and pass a bond for that amount and put into the infrastructure bank. We would make secure, low interest loans available and that would help communities leverage federal dollars.”
She added, “This is the smartest way to get the most money into our infrastructure and empower communities to start rebuilding.” Her proposal is smart in another way too. It would give local communities the ability to act on their needs, rather than just Big Sister in Lansing.
Whitmer, unlike our last two governors, has actually served in the legislature and understands it. She knows very well they will never come up with the money.
Even if this turns out to be a Democratic “wave” year and she is swept into office, Republicans will control the state senate, and they wouldn’t raise the revenue to fund needed infrastructure improvements if every bridge in the state collapsed.
That means going to the people and selling them on doing it through a bond issue. This will cost us all money, and Whitmer is a politician. She avoids the term “tax increase” in favor of “user fees.” But her plan, called “Get it Done: Rebuild Michigan,” makes it clear that her plan will both cost us money – and be cheaper than doing nothing.
“Our roads are so bad they cost the average driver more than $540 a year, and none of that fixes a single pothole,” she said. She unveiled her plan at an auto parts shop in suburban Detroit, the first stop on a “fix the damn roads tour.”
But fortunately her plan isn’t just about the roads, but is also aimed at protecting water supplies, building a badly needed new Soo Lock, and connecting more of Michigan to high-speed broadband internet. Whitmer is also shrewdly and correctly repeating the mantra that we need to “invest in good infrastructure because it’s good for business.”
Her rivals, both Republicans and Democrats, will immediately begin to attack this plan, which is their right. But I suggest that our first question for her critics should be, “Where is your infrastructure plan?” If they don’t have one, I’m not much interested in listening.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.