Biz leaders make push for new road revenue as Whitmer, GOP leaders keep talking

Road work in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

The state’s leading business advocacy groups want Michigan lawmakers to know that they’ll stand with them if they vote to raise taxes for road-funding revenue.

Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley at a press conference on hiking road funding, Aug. 20, 2019 | Nick Manes

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, officials from other groups like Business Leaders for Michigan and various regional chambers held a press conference on Tuesday urging action on the state’s beleaguered transportation infrastructure. 

No group explicitly endorsed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal to incrementally raise the gas tax by 45 cents to generate about $2 billion in new annual revenue for road funding, but leaders were clear that her proposal is in line with their idea of an appropriate level of funding. 

Studley made clear that his deep-pocketed organization, which is typically allied with Republicans, will notice who ⁠⁠— and who doesn’t — vote to tackle the problem. 

“For the lawmakers who think that doing nothing is the best way to play it safe, our message to those lawmakers is that if you’re in favor of bad roads, we’re going to work really hard to make sure that lawmakers who support good roads have the opportunity to stand up and be counted,” Studley told reporters on Tuesday. 

Whitmer wants to fix the damn roads. Citizens wonder why the last tax hike wasn’t enough.

“And will also be counting the lawmakers who say you no, the status quo is fine,” Studley added. 

He noted later, however, that the Michigan Chamber doesn’t act punitively, and that it looks at legislators’ full voting records before deciding who to support. 

“We’re encouraging and supporting lawmakers to do the right thing and we’re going to stand with them when they do that,” Studley said.

Lawmakers have good reason to take Studley’s words to heart. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan, Lansing-based money-in-politics watchdog group, documented in May the outsized role the chamber plays in fundraising and policymaking in Lansing. 

Groups call on Legislature to continue work on budget, roads, revenue

“[I]t’s hard to find any lobbying group that has a broader reach than the Michigan Chamber of Commerce,” the MCFN report notes. 

Studley and other business group officials repeatedly stressed the need for “substantial” new road-funding revenue, but declined to endorse a specific mechanism through which to raise that money. 

Business groups held a press conference on hiking road funding, Aug. 20, 2019 | Nick Manes

“We support a plan that dedicates, constitutionally, $2.5 billion to transportation infrastructure,” said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

Williams noted that money from the state’s gas tax is required by the state constitution to go toward road funding. 

“Right now, the governor’s plan is the only one that does that,” Williams said. “If there is another or a better way to do it, we’re all ears. But right now, the governor’s plan is the only one out there, so we support that.” 

Where negotiations stand

The response to Whitmer’s gas tax increase has been nothing short of ice-cold in the Republican-controlled Legislature. GOP lawmakers have yet to produce a comprehensive road-funding plan of their own, with only about six weeks remaining in the state’s fiscal year ending on Sept. 30. 

Here’s your cheat sheet for Michigan’s budget after a long, hot, stagnant summer

Whitmer has been adamant that the Fiscal Year 2020 budget must have a road-funding plan. 

Reports emerged Tuesday that Senate Republicans were exploring a potential smaller gas tax increase of 10 or 20 cents as part of their road-funding plan. Senate Republican spokeswoman Amber McCann declined to confirm those reports in a text message to the Advance, calling it “speculation,” and noting that “there’s no agreement,” as various proposals are under consideration. 

Mike Shirkey

Whitmer was scheduled to host a media roundtable on Tuesday, but the event was canceled due to a change in the governor’s schedule, according to Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. 

“Talks are happening but until Republicans put a plan on the table, they continue to just be conversations and not negotiations,” Brown said Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, the state Senate met briefly Tuesday morning for the first time in two months since taking its regular summer break. The state House is set to resume sessions next week. 

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, state Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), who chairs the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, said Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have continued to discuss road funding behind the scenes. 

“As long as they’re still talking, I’m happy,” Schmidt said. “There’s all sorts of things out there being discussed, and we’ve got to make sure that whatever we decide as a caucus, and working with the House and the governor, is going to have enough votes to pass, and that’s what we’re working on.”

Reporter Derek Robertson contributed to this story.

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