News Story

‘Watch What They Do,’ Whitmer Says — And State Road Funding Down This Year

To be fair, governors propose and legislators dispose — and yet

Selected to give the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opened her rebuttal by saying, “You can listen to what someone says, but to know the truth, watch what they do.”

While Whitmer was referring to Trump, the comment could also apply to her own promise to fix the roads. During her campaign for governor and after her election, Whitmer said it was a top priority because the roads are so bad they’re dangerous.

But Whitmer's main road repair proposal was an unrealistic 45 cent per gallon gas tax increase that represented a $2.5 billion tax increase. It didn’t help that $600 million from the tax hike would have gone to other state government spending, not roads.

Also, in the first annual budget signed into law by the governor, state transportation funding actually went down, not up. The budget authorized spending $3.61 billion in state transportation money in 2019-20, down from $3.64 billion in the last budget signed by her Republican predecessor.

Transportation spending went down because Whitmer used her line-item veto power to remove from the state budget $375 million slated for road repairs. The Republican Legislature had added the money to the budget, paid for by higher-than-projected revenues from the income tax and other taxes not specifically levied for roads. The veto caused the first decline in state transportation spending since 2014-15.

To be fair, governors propose and legislators dispose, and Whitmer required cooperation from the Republican-controlled state House and Senate to create a budget. Against that, however, candidate Whitmer had boasted of legislative skills developed during 14 years as a state representative and senator. And her proposal to increase the gas tax by 45 cents per gallon was so unrealistic that not a single legislator of her own party ever introduced a bill to enact it.

Whitmer’s budget recommendation for the next fiscal year (2020-2021) was delivered last week. In the short term, it would increase transportation spending by $238 million. That is still less than the $375 million transportation funding increase Whitmer vetoed.

Not in the budget but already underway is Whitmer’s long-term road fix: take on $3.5 billion in new long-term state debt, to be repaid over 25 years out of future gas tax and license plate tax collections.

The first round of bond sales for this was approved on Jan. 30 by the State Transportation Commission.