Detroit chamber CEO: ‘Growing split’ with GOP, biz community on roads

Potholes along Capitol Avenue in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

Sandy Baruah, Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said on Thursday that his organization believes Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s $2.5 billion roads proposal is the right amount to get the job done.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking with CEO Sandy Baruah at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Whitmer spoke at the group’s luncheon at MGM Grand Casino in Detroit and received a warmer reception on her 45-cent gas tax hike than she has from GOP leaders in the Michigan Legislature and some citizens.

Business groups and Republican lawmakers have traditionally been in lockstep on policy in Michigan. But Baruah said that a divide is emerging on roads.

“I’m really hopeful,” Baruah told reporters. “I think that there is a growing split between the Republican legislators and the business community. I think that the business community is becoming much more amenable to the 45-cents gas tax to solve the roads problem.”

Business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, have long favored “user fees” like the gas tax to fund road improvements.

The Detroit Regional Chamber last year surprised some in backing Whitmer, a Democrat, in the gubernatorial race over her GOP opponent, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

In her speech, Whitmer encouraged the Legislature to take “one historic vote” in supporting her effort to increase the state gas tax. She called that the “lynchpin” to fixing the roads problem and freeing up revenue to improve schools, provide clean water and bridge the skills gap.

“I’m asking the Legislature to take one historic vote to raise the revenue to actually fund roads the right way so we can get back to putting school aid dollars in our schools and fix our education crisis, too,” Whitmer told reporters after her presentation. “It’s one hard vote. Budgets have a lot of votes involved in them, but the hard work of making sure that we can pay for it is in that gas tax bill.”

Whitmer spent the day in Southeast Michigan, starting with the annual Pancakes & Politics Breakfast in Detroit.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Henry Ford Community College, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

She also toured Henry Ford Community College, where she made her pitch to close the skills gap and touted her plans to increase post-high school attainment in Michigan with new scholarships.

After she spoke at the Detroit Chamber, the governor joined former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg in Eastpointe. As the Advance reported earlier on Thursday, Bloomberg Philanthropies is awarding Michigan $10 million to combat opioid overdose deaths as part of its $50 million initiative. Michigan is the second state to receive a grant.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Russ Kavalhun, Henry Ford Community College president, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

On Friday, Whitmer will continue lobbying for her budget with stops in Port Huron and Richmond.

As the Advance has reported, Whitmer’s predecessor, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, also tried to fix Michigan’s infrastructure. His roughly $2 billion plan hiking the sales and gas tax went down in flames in the May 2015 statewide election.

Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature cobbled together a plan later than year that will raise $1.2 billion by 2021 for infrastructure. The legislation increased fuel taxes and registration fees and backfilled with general fund dollars.

Baruah noted that the Detroit Chamber argued back then that the amount was “totally insufficient.”

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“We continue to believe that and it’s going to take $2.5 billion a year,” Baruah said. “If someone else can show us a way to raise $2.5 billion a year, we’re all ears. But we haven’t seen that.”

He noted that cutting the budget to fund roads, as some Republicans have suggested, would have big consequences.

“Anyone who thinks that you can cut even half of that [$2.5 billion] out of other elements of state government without having significant ramifications to real people,” Baruah said, “you’re smoking something that’s illegal.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.
Susan J. Demas is a 17-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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