GOP lawmakers angry over Whitmer’s ‘end-run’ on road bonds

Road work in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s $3.5 billion road bonding plan was already approved by an administrative board last week, but a GOP-led House committee wanted to talk about it at a hearing Tuesday.

The Legislature didn’t have a role in that process. State House Transportation Committee Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) expressed frustration with the governor’s State of the State address.

Whitmer criticized Republicans in last week’s address, saying they have not “followed suit on tough issues in order to move Michigan forward together.” Whitmer reminded Michiganders to look out for orange barrels and said it’s her administration that’s “fixing the damn roads,” with bonding.

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O’Malley argued his committee has worked hard on infrastructure.

“We aren’t standing around leaning on our shovels, there were lots of orange barrels this past summer,” O’Malley said. “But the governor is going around the Legislature to bond and our local communities, look like they might lose out, and that’s why this committee has to bring some oversight to what I believe is an end-run.”

State Rep. Lynn Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Twp.), who’s running for Congress in the 3rd Congressional District, echoed O’Malley’s thoughts, saying the committee has been working very hard. She said it is the interest of everyone on the committee to get more funding for roads, but Whitmer’s plan concerns her.

“What this does is kick the can down the road, and creates a solution on the backs of our children,” Afendoulis said. “We’re talking about funding right now to build the roads, not to maintain the roads.”

The State Transportation Commission unanimously approved Whitmer’s plan at a meeting the morning after her announcement

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Funds from the bonds will not be used to repair local roads and bridges, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Laure Mester explained at the meeting. These funds will be used to repair highly used, most damaged state roads, as permitted under state law. The money will be used primarily for the complete rebuilding of roads, Mester added. 

MDOT Director Paul Ajegba testified at Tuesday’s committee hearing on the financial benefit to the state when roads can be repaired fully instead of patching them, which he noted is cheaper, but not as effective.

Ajegba said it is “gut-wrenching” to be “forced to make a choice” between spending $200 million to fix a road the right way or spend $50 million to fix the road with a Band-Aid.

Republicans also questioned Ajegba about paying for labor. Michiganders all know there’s a limited window where road construction can take place, Rep. Gary Eisen (R-St. Clair) said, so there are limits on what can be accomplished in a certain timeframe. 

He said unless MDOT plans to hire more contractors for the warm, dry window for construction, the bond money would be like paying someone to build 20 houses, knowing they can only build five.

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“How is throwing money on that, are we going to create more contractors?” Eisen asked. “I don’t see any more possible work being done than what’s being done already with existing money.”

Ajegba said MDOT has sufficient contractors and a heightened focus on trunkline repairs will not take away significantly from local repair work.

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, now president of the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM), echoed Republicans’ concerns about local roads being left out of the equation. He said there needs to be an additional source of revenue for repayment and interest on the bonds and Whitmer’s plan is ill-prepared to cover the costs.

Calley said the association could get behind plans such as gas tax increase — which GOP lawmakers rejected last year — toll roads and a borrowing plan that has a definitive repayment source. 

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The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which is usually aligned with the GOP-controlled Legislature, came out in support of Whitmer’s bonding plan and continues to back a comprehensive roads deal, as it has for years.

Chamber CEO Rich Studley told the Advance via Twitter Tuesday morning that “we weren’t invited to testify today. The original committee agenda only included critics & opponents of the Governor’s plan to use state transportation bonds to rebuild major roads & critical bridges. The Chamber supports the plan. The updated agenda now includes the [administration].”

After the hearing, Studley took issue with Republicans’ criticism of road bonding and took a swipe at one of lawmakers’ failed infrastructure proposals in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. 

“Adding 122 construction projects to MDOT’s 5 year plan that the agency would otherwise not have the money to do is a step forward, not a ‘gimmick,’” he wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Trying to fix the roads by selling the Blue Water Bridge that links Port Huron with Sarnia, is a gimmick.”