Low-Hanging Fruit Can Help Fund Roads

There's plenty of money in the current budget

An old saying goes, "Those who love sausage or legislation should never watch either being made."

The road funding debate now underway in the state Capitol is a prime example, with multiple proposals swirling around Lansing. Currently, rather than trim some fat from Michigan's $52 billion budget and reallocate the money to road repairs, Republicans in the state Senate have suggested reaching more deeply into taxpayer pockets for an additional $1.5 billion.

But how to get that done? Knowing the difficulty of passing a massive tax increase in an election year, Senate Democrats have suggested that their votes are available. If, that is, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, agrees to undo recent reforms that have contributed to Michigan's climbing out of an economic lost decade, and pledge to not enact certain additional reforms (such as repealing a state prevailing wage law that increases the cost of government construction projects).

This comes even as rumors circulate that to get Democratic votes on a minimum wage increase pre-empting an even worse ballot initiative, Republicans already gave more ground than needed in return for votes on a big road tax hike.

There is a better way that doesn't require costly policy abdications, in the form of cutting some low-hanging fruit from the excessive state spending tree, and using that money for road repairs instead. It's likely that taxpayers and voters on both sides of the political divide would prefer this ahead of a tax increase even larger than the one inflicted by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2007.

Indeed, the state House has already passed a reasonable funding bill along these lines, cobbling together nearly $500 million for roads by redirecting some existing state revenue streams. Some $130 million would come from simply dedicating previously unallocated gasoline sales tax revenue to roads, and another $239 million would come from use tax collections. Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysts have identified a number of possible spending cuts that could juice these amounts even more:

Eliminating Michigan's department of corporate welfare (otherwise known as the Michigan Economic Development Corp.) would save $300 million a year.

If lawmakers regard a complete dismantling as too far of a reach, they could at least forgo doubling expenditures for film producer subsidies from $25 million to $50 million. Forking over these taxpayer dollars to Hollywood moguls just adds taxpayer insult to a huge tax hike injury.

Speaking of low-hanging corporate welfare spending (agribusiness), eliminating a government Agricultural Experimental and Cooperative Extension Service would free up another $50 million that could go to roads. This list could include an additional 40 or 50 savings recommendations, along with full, line-item budget analyses from 19962003 and 2004.

As mentioned, one of the compromises that may enter the tax hike sausage is not repealing Michigan's prevailing wage. That would be a shame, because doing so could provide a conservative $100 million for roads and other state projects (or maybe even tax cuts).  

There's nothing wrong with asking for a little "shared sacrifice" to improve Michigan's roads. The question is whether taxpayers will be the only ones making any sacrifices.