Roads, school funding dominate Rep. Brixie town hall in East Lansing

A car navigating Meridian Twp.'s potholes | Susan J. Demas

After a full day for the Michigan Legislature as it finished work on the $60 billion Fiscal Year 2020 budget, state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) met with constituents Tuesday night to talk about funding for roads and schools.

Rep. Julie Brixie at an East Lansing roads town hall, Sept. 24, 2019 | Allison Donahue

The GOP-led Legislature has long opposed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 45-cent gas tax proposal aimed at raising $2.5 billion annually for infrastructure. On Tuesday, the chambers instead passed one-time funding of $400 million for roads and bridges from the state’s discretionary General Fund in the transportation budget.

“It’s been really disappointing to me that we have been putting budgets before the governor that do not address the serious problems here in Michigan,” Brixie said during the town hall at the Hannah Community Center in East Lansing. “We have had decades of disinvestment in our infrastructure, and we have to address these issues.”

Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Paul Ajegba, who joined Brixie for the town hall, said that Michigan is ranked 46th in the nation for infrastructure investment and ranked last in the country for quality.

Final GOP budgets pass Legislature, Whitmer calls bills ‘a mess’

Looking at nearby states, Wisconsin ranked ninth, Illinois ranked 10th and Ohio ranked 33rd for per-capita money spent on highways, according to Ajegba. 

MDOT Director Paul Ajegba at an East Lansing roads town hall, Sept. 24, 2019 | Allison Donahue

Brixie backs Whitmer’s proposal to raise $2.5 billion annually for the state’s roads and bridges. 

The crowd of about 60 constituents from East Lansing, Lansing and Meridian Township, mostly supported Brixie during the question-and-comment session of the night, but some raised questions about alternative infrastructure funding.

“We have to figure out how we want to do it,” she said about paying for roads. “Are we going to enact a new mileage program? Do we want to go for a graduated income tax? There are many solutions to generate the revenue that’s needed to invest in Michigan.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks to reporters at a Lansing bridge | Derek Robertson

Whitmer released her executive budget recommendations in March and had been working with state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) on coming up with a long-term funding solution for roads. 

However, the parties agreed this month to set roads aside in an effort to finish the budget. That strategy also fell apart over GOP leaders’ use of one-time funding for roads, which Whitmer believes has more value being used on other priorities. 

Brixie told constituents she believes this was the Republican strategy all along. 

Another Michigan budget standoff dawns

“This was intentional, as they wanted to run out the clock and make it impossible to finalize a budget that included a plan to fix the roads,” Brixie said. 

It is unclear when the department budgets passed last week and Tuesday will land on the governor’s desk. Brixie said she’s hopeful lawmakers will find a way to fund infrastructure without going into a government shutdown. 

Whitmer has until midnight on Oct. 1 to sign budgets for the upcoming year or else the state would enter a partial government shutdown.

“I’m hopeful [Whitmer] will use her veto pen and that we can have a good-faith negotiation with the Republicans in both chambers and come up with real solutions for the roads,” Brixie said.

Whitmer, Republicans remain at odds over using pension bonds to fix roads

But as for GOP suggestions on road funding, she criticized a proposal to cut into funding for education and the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System (MPSERS).

Brixie cited a study done by the Anderson Economic Group, an East Lansing-based consulting firm headed by former Deputy Treasurer Patrick Anderson. The study estimates that issuing $10 billion in bonds against MPSERS has at least a 50% chance of losing the state money and a 30% chance of losing up to $25 billion. 

Residents at the roads town hall, Sept. 24, 2019 | Allison Donahue

“It’s our job to come together to find real solutions for the roads that don’t involve stealing money from education, stealing money from pensions or stealing money from other sources,” Brixie said.

Brixie voted no on the School Aid Fund budget that passed Thursday and primarily funds K-12 schools. That budget passed in the House with a 91-18 vote, with only opposition coming from Democrats, and passed in the Senate with a 21-17 vote.  

“We are balancing on the backs of our schoolchildren,” said Brixie. “We need to keep the money that’s in the K-12 budget there and not use that money to fill potholes.”

K-12 budget goes to Whitmer amidst Democratic divide

Under Whitmer’s proposal to raise the gas tax by 45 cents, the state budget would see $2.5 billion in new revenue, with $600 million of that being shifted back into the General Fund for priorities such as higher education. 

Doing so, Whitmer argues, ends the “shell game,” which she says lawmakers have used to make up for a lack of dedicated revenue for roads and schools.

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