Published in Economic Development

Bipartisan group pushes 47-cent increase to state gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements

BY Thursday, January 31, 2019 01:57pm

A bipartisan group of former lawmakers and Lansing political veterans today proposed a 47-cent increase in the state gas tax to fix Michigan’s roads.

The Michigan Consensus Policy Project proposes to increase the gas tax 7 cents in the first year, then another 5 cents annually over the next eight years, generating $2.7 billion a year once fully implemented.

Ken Sikkema

“This problem has to be solved,” said Ken Sikkema, a former Republican legislator and Senate majority leader from Kent County. “There’s no question about the need. There’s no question about the importance of this.”

Sikkema formed the Michigan Consensus Policy Project with former state House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, a Republican from Allegan County, and former Lt. Gov. John Cherry and Senate Minority Leader Bob Emerson, both Democrats. Sikkema and Cherry serve as co-chairs.

If ever adopted by legislators in Lansing, the group’s proposal would push Michigan’s gas tax to 73 cent per gallon, the highest in the nation.

The newly formed Michigan Consensus Policy Project proposed the increase in the gas tax to “jumpstart the conversation about how do you solve the problem” of Michigan’s aging infrastructure and crumbling roads.

“I would welcome other alternatives,” Sikkema said. “Our discussion among the four of us is we said look, ‘There might be some other ideas and it’s time to put them on the table.’”

The proposal from the former lawmakers comes following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s election last November with a campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads.”

The group also cites a report from a state commission two years ago that identified a need to generate $2.6 billion annually to repair Michigan’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Lawmakers never acted on the report. The plan followed the state Legislature’s passage of a $1.2 billion plan that raised the gas tax 7 cent and increased vehicle registration fees but doesn’t get fully funded until 2021.

“The problem hasn’t been solved and it needs to be solved,” said Emerson, who also served as state budget director under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Emerson and Sikkema acknowledge that raising the gas tax was a “tough issue” politically for legislators, although the problem of Michigan’s infrastructure funding has not been fully solved.

“I would say also the do-nothing approach is not acceptable. That’s just not acceptable,” Sikkema said. “In our conversations as a group, we were not that interested in sort of anemic measures that make the problem worse because that’s sort of the issue with roads. If you don’t solve the problem, the problem gets worse.

“But I acknowledge that raising this kind of revenue, if it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago.”

The Michigan Consensus Policy Project came out of conversations Sikkema and Emerson began having a year ago about the polarization in politics “and how that can get in the way of problem-solving and reaching a consensus on a variety of issues,” Sikkema said.

They later asked Hillegonds and Cherry to become involved. Former legislators Joe Haveman, a Republican from Holland, and Steve Tobocman, a Detroit Democrat, also joined the group’s steering committee.

“We want to focus on tougher issues that have resisted solutions over time. We don’t see any value as a group of just kind of looking at the low-hanging fruit,” Sikkema said. “We thought there would be some value in demonstrating that people … can come up with solutions to tough problems.”

Rather than form a new nonprofit entity, the Michigan Consensus Policy Project operates under the Ann Arbor-based Center for Michigan, which describes itself as a “think-and-do” tank.

Transportation funding is the group’s first public policy issue “because of the need and its importance.” Members “don’t have a clue as a group” what they will take up next, Sikkema said.

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