Ken Sikkema and three former state legislative colleagues created the Michigan Consensus Policy Project to offer solutions to pressing problems in the state in an era of what he calls “intense” political polarization. The bipartisan group’s first proposal is a 47-cent increase in the state gas tax over nine years to generate the $2.7 billion annually that’s needed to fix Michigan’s roads. Sikkema, who served in the state House and Senate for 20 years, formed the group with former state House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, a Republican from Holland, and former legislator and Lt. Gov. John Cherry and one-time Senate Minority Leader Bob Emerson, both Democrats. Sikkema spoke with MiBiz about the project and what the group hopes to accomplish.
When you talk about wanting to overcome that intense polarization, what do you think got us here?
I think there is lot of different things, and a lot of the factors that have led to this pretty intense polarization in American politics today are going to continue. The rise of the internet and social media, and the ability to organize in a moment’s time using those tools — that’s part of it.
Why start the Michigan Consensus Policy Project?
The political parties have become extremely polarized over a period of time. Term limits in Michigan probably are a factor because in primaries, where most people get elected today to the legislature, they tend to favor on the Republican side the most conservative and on the Democratic side, probably the most progressive candidates. The rise of what I would call issue groups and special interest groups that didn’t exist before and that thrive on polarization on both sides of the aisle: That’s a fairly recent phenomenon. There are a lot of factors that have led to this polarization and we felt there needs to be entities to counteract that.
How do you begin to overcome political polarization?
What we’re trying to do, in our own way and in a limited way, is to demonstrate that partisanship in and of itself doesn’t preclude reaching consensus on tough problems. All four of us were very partisan when we served. We all had not just our responsibilities as legislators, but at one time or another, we all were in charge of our respective caucuses and campaign operations. One way you help round the edges off this sharp culture of polarization is you show that there are some partisans from both sides who can come together and offer a consensus. You help soften that political culture by offering consensus solutions.
You’re not saying that everyone has to agree on everything all of the time, right?
It’s important to distinguish between partisanship and polarization, which is why we named the group the Michigan Consensus Policy Project and not the ‘Michigan Bipartisan Policy Project.’ Partisanship is how our political system is organized, but that doesn’t mean you need to be that polarized. The danger of polarization is that it can prevent you from reaching consensus solutions. One way to overcome that is (with) this kind of entity. It’s Republicans and Democrats coming together, debating an issue, reaching a consensus on a possible solution, and then offering that solution in the public sphere and encouraging others to maybe look for a different solution, but recognizing that it has to be bipartisan and across the aisle and in consensus.
Does the election of a Democratic governor with a Republican legislature heighten the need for consensus?
It’s probably all the more important today because you have split government in Lansing. You’re not going to make any progress without finding consensus.
In your introductory press conference last month, you emphasized the point that your proposals may not represent the final solutions.
We just want our ideas put on the table. We encourage other ideas, other solutions to the problems we identify. In this case, it’s road funding. If someone has a better idea or a different idea, we’d like to see it. We encourage it. On this issue, someone had to get the conversation going about how to pay for improving our roads. It’s pretty easy to talk about how bad they are. It’s a lot tougher to talk about how you find the revenue to fix them.
Why start out with the gas tax as your first proposal?
We wanted to tackle some of the bigger issues facing the state, and we collectively felt that the funding transportation needs, particularly roads, was probably the single biggest (issue) facing the state, or at least one of them. The roads in Michigan are arguably the worst in the country. The need has been identified and pretty well researched.
How did you come up with the revenue figure for road funding?
We started with $2.6 billion a year identified by the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission formed by (former) Gov. Snyder as the foundation. We actually believe there is a segment and category of roads that they didn’t look at, which is a lot of the local and suburban roads, so we added $100 million to that number and came up with $2.7 billion a year. It’s a big number.
Why does this gas tax proposal make sense?
There are relatively few revenue sources that you can use, and one that is still a user fee is the gas tax. It has some attractive features to it. It can be phased in over time. Our proposal is you phase this in over nine years so it doesn’t happen all at once. The other attractive feature is that it’s paid in relatively small amounts on a regular basis because you pay it when you fill up your tank.
Why that large of an increase in the gas tax?
There were a lot of reasons why we felt that was the best revenue source, recognizing that it’s a huge problem that we face in Michigan, but it’s got to be addressed. The other principle we agreed to was that we did not want to propose what we would call a half-measure or something that wasn’t going to fully solve this problem. In the case of roads, the longer you wait, the more they deteriorate and the more expensive it gets to fix them. We wanted to propose something that was actually going to accomplish the objective of fixing the worst roads in the country.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.