Whitmer likely ditching 45-cent gas tax, as ‘worst pothole season in recent memory’ looms

Gov. says graduated income tax ‘could be a solution’

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her year-end press conference, Dec. 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature pledge to “fix the damn roads” will have to wait until 2020, as she and the GOP Legislature never hammered out a plan — they barely agreed to a budget deal — and lawmakers are gone for the year.

But she’s not ready to reveal her new plan yet.

Speaking with reporters during a year-end roundtable Wednesday afternoon along with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Whitmer said she won’t be bringing back her 45-cent gas tax in the New Year. That would have raised about $2.5 billion annually for infrastructure, which is roughly what experts estimate is needed for a comprehensive solution for the state’s worst-in-the-nation roads.

Republicans leery, Democrats silent on governor’s gas tax hike

“So the Legislature has shown a complete lack of courage when it came to actually solving the problem. … So to do the same thing in year two would probably not be wise, but I’m not in a position to tell you more about where we’re going to be headed. You’ll have to wait and see.”

Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield
Lee Chatfield | Nick Manes photo

As the warm-up act before President Donald Trump took the stage for his Battle Creek rally Wednesday night, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) brought up Whitmer’s 45-cent gas tax, which did the trick of eliciting boos from the GOP crowd.

Whitmer also knocked the GOP-led Legislature for never coming up with their own plan.

“There’s not been a long-term alternative that’s been put on the table by the Legislature and I think it’s a complete failure on their part in terms of addressing the most important issue that voters care about right now in Michigan,” she said.

She did not back down from the idea that roads are a fundamental problem leaders need to solve in the state, warning that the “worst pothole season in recent memory” is on the horizon.

“We have an infrastructure crisis that is undeniable,” Whitmer said. “When pothole season hits in 3 1/2 months from now, people are going to be furious. I told the Legislature I wouldn’t want to be the one running next year on a dirt-road agenda, which is essentially what I think some of them are prepared to do and I think it’s it’s dangerous. It hurts our ability to grow our economy and to lure investment into Michigan.”

Poll: Strong support for graduated income tax

The Advance asked Whitmer if she will push for a graduated income tax, which is currently prohibited under Michigan’s Constitution. Whitmer said in May during a sitdown interview that she’s supported the idea but “I can’t build a budget this year based on the prospect of a ballot initiative next year.”

“There’s a lot of conversation in town around that,” the governor said on Wednesday. “I know there are a lot of stakeholders that are interested in going to the ballot with something of that nature. I know that a lot of legislators on the Democratic side have been talking about that and something that I supported many different times in my political career and I suppose that that could be a solution.”

Whitmer was then pressed if she would consider a ballot measure for roads, even though her predecessor, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, saw his plan go down in flames in 2015 with 80% opposed.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her year-end press conference, Dec. 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“It all depends on what it is, what it looks like,” she said. “… At one point, there were discussions by Republicans about a 1-cent sales tax. I don’t know how serious they are, but the Legislature and the governor can’t do that; it ultimately goes to the people. And the people have to be confident that dollars are going where they’re supposed to go, that they’re going to actually fix the problem. And I have not seen any seriousness around a solution that I would be eager to support at this point.”

When asked if she thought the state might need more than $2.5 billion annually for roads after another year without a solution, Whitmer said, “Every day that goes by that we don’t actually solve the problem it gets more expensive. … We’re shutting down a bridge every other week in Michigan right now.”

Advance reporter Nick Manes contributed reporting.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-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.