LANSING — Rick Outman went to church last Sunday expecting to hear a sermon from his preacher.
However, the state representative also received an exhortation from his congregation of constituents about how state legislators adjourned for the summer without reaching an agreement about how to fix the roads.
Outman, R-Six Lakes, says he’s as frustrated as anyone about the situation.
“I was extremely, extremely disappointed on Thursday when we adjourned,” he said of elected officials leaving Lansing for the summer break. “I would have rather stayed. You don’t leave until it’s done, and we did, and I was very disappointed with that.”
Outman said the majority of his constituents — churchgoers or otherwise — have repeatedly told him they support a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax to fund road repair.
“The biggest thing I hear is that people would support a 1 cent sales tax increase,” Outman said. “I would be for that.”
State Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, also supports a 1 percent sales tax increase. She was one of a handful of senators who voted in favor of placing the sales tax increase proposal on a ballot in November for voters to decide. That motion overwhelmingly failed.
“The majority of folks that discussed this with me, that was their preference, to increase the sales tax, that was their preference over the proposal that affected the gas tax,” Emmons said. “When you don’t know where the price of gas is going, that made people very nervous, so they were willing to do something a little more stable, they were willing to vote for a penny on sales tax.
“Quite frankly, it is a more stable source for the state,” she said. “It’s constitutional, it would be voted on by the citizens so it could never be used for anything else other than road repairs.”
Michigan’s gas taxes are among the highest in the nation. However, Michigan spends less per driver on roads than any other state as the 6 percent sales tax collected on fuel goes to schools and local governments — not roads — per the state’s Constitution.
‘Hell no’ to gas tax increase
Outman may be a Republican, but he “vehemently opposed” a proposal from Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, that would have more than doubled the state’s gasoline tax.
“I was a hell no,” Outman said. “I think we would have gotten the second highest gas tax in the nation. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that every time the gas tax goes up, the economy goes down. You would be doing exactly the opposite of what our system should do, which should be trying to increase revenue.
“We’re a society that doesn’t work in our hometowns anymore a lot of the time. We work in Grand Rapids and Lansing. I saw it in my own business (Outman Excavating in Six Lakes). It (a gas tax increase) was going to increase my cost of doing business which meant people couldn’t afford to hire me which meant I couldn’t spend money and keep people on my payroll.”
Emmons acknowledged that while many voters are frustrated that legislators didn’t reach a road funding agreement, other voters are happy the gas tax increase wasn’t approved.
She thinks part of the failure to agree on a road funding solution comes down to where legislators live.
“Yes, the roads are bad, but they’re worse in some parts of the state than in others,” she said. “Some of it comes down to location. My whole vote was based on what folks in my district told me.”
Emmons said one of her constituents said they didn’t think their 96-year-old mother — who no longer drives — should have to pay for a road tax. However, Emmons noted as truck delivery overtakes railroad delivery, everyone benefits from a road tax to ensure merchandise shipments are trucked to local stores and factories in a safe and timely manner.
“I just felt with a sales tax increase, you wouldn’t have to do all these separate other ones,” she said. “Just do the sales tax.”
Outman agreed the sales tax increase option is a good one for road funding. In the meantime, he said he “reluctantly” voted in favor of a House proposal, which would have generated $462 million for road funding. That proposal passed in the House, but went nowhere in the Senate.
“We thought it was a good start, a good down payment,” Outman said. “We knew it wasn’t a final solution, but we thought it was probably enough to get the ball rolling.”
Outman says he realizes state residents are frustrated, but he believes the House and Senate are making progress.
“To say that we’ve done nothing would be a gross injustice,” he said. “We did allocate $285 million to roads this year. We’ve done that every year since we’ve been in office. That’s a huge positive. People want to focus on the negative.
“A lot of times it’s under special projects,” he added. “We’ve known all along that that’s not the solution, that we need a special fix. We do feel with passion that there are a lot of things we need to work on.”
‘It’s a Band Aid and we need major surgery’
John Richard, the communications representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) office in Grand Rapids, said every little bit of road funding helps, but the state has yet to find a longterm solution.
“It’s a broken record,” he said of legislators’ yearly promises. “This is an ongoing scenario every year with the legislators. The road commissions, the state, the cities, the villages, we’re getting used to this happening and we’re getting used to stretching a dollar, but it’s really frustrating. It’s difficult when the elected officials don’t act upon it.”
Even if the House and Senate had reached a road funding agreement last week, Richard said resulting road work likely wouldn’t have taken place any time this year, as MDOT works from a five-year plan and summertime is already just days away.
“We do have projects on standby, but if we do get an influx of money right now, due to the lateness of the year, it wouldn’t likely take place until 2015,” he said. “There’s so many variables. Some of it depends on the availability of the contract crews. There’s a ton of variables.”
Richard recalled two years ago when Gov. Rick Snyder in his state of the state address called for an additional $1.3 billion of new revenue for the state every year. Richard noted of that total amount, only a fraction would go toward roads.
“All these little influxes of money are really appreciated,” he said. “We can do projects with them. But we’re not even close to reaching a long term solution that will address the issue. It’s a Band Aid and we need major surgery.”
In the meantime, a legislative committee plans to convene this summer to continue working toward a road funding solution, according to Outman.