January 2, 2020 2:00 PM, EST

Next Four Months Could Make or Break Michigan Road Aid Deal

Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed hiking the gas tax by 45 cents per gallon. (Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg News)

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LANSING, Mich. — If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to “fix the damn roads” during the 2020 election year, she’ll have to quickly find consensus with Republican lawmakers, say political operatives who’ve worked on transportation funding.

Without a compromise in the first few months of the year, the politics of the 2020 election could create an obstacle too divisive to overcome, they say.

“I think there’s at least three or four months, especially within the time frame of the next State of the State address and with the introduction of a new budget,” said Rich Studley, president and CEO for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “They have a choice to make: shared responsibility or divided government.”

A compromise will become harder to reach as the election nears, said Dick Posthumus, a former lieutenant governor and Senate majority leader who lobbied lawmakers for Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder.

“Politics begin to enter into it more than substance,” he said.

Posthumus helped shepherd the last major increase in transportation funding through the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015. The package of bills included increasing the gasoline tax by 7.3 cents per gallon to 26.3 cents starting in 2017 and registration fees by 20%, but Michigan’s transportation chief at the time said it would only help keep the roads from getting worse.

In February, Whitmer, a Democrat who ran on a campaign promise of fixing “the damn roads,” proposed hiking the gas tax by 45 cents per gallon — a plan the chamber supported. The more than 170% tax hike would have generated $2.5 billion in new revenue, including a $1.9 billion boost for roads.

The proposal was resisted by Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, called it a “lead balloon.” House Minority Leader Chris Greig previously labeled it “the extreme that won’t happen.”

Whitmer is expected to introduce a new proposal in early 2020. In a Dec. 18 interview with reporters, the governor declined to offer any details but she said every day the state doesn’t act, the price tag increases — an amount pegged at more than $2 billion.

“I did what I said I was going to do,” Whitmer told reporters. “Had the Legislature followed suit or worked with me on those things, we could be avoiding the worst pothole season in recent memory, which is what we’re gearing up for.”

Republican legislative leaders have expressed optimism that a deal can be reached but insist a new road funding plan should include assurances that all taxes paid at the pump go to roads, find savings in the existing budget and cut vehicle registration fees.

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