County commissioner weighs in on road bills

Published 10:08 am Monday, July 6, 2015

Earlier this year, Lansing’s convoluted solution for funding more than $1 billion worth of repairs to the state’s crumbling roads crashed and burned at the polls, with Michigan voters overwhelmingly voting against the ballot proposal that would have enacted laws to raise the necessary revenue.

Since then, lawmakers in both the state House and Senate have ironed out a number of bills that would raise money for the infrastructural repairs, be it through cutting funding to other state programs or through changes to the gasoline tax rate. Last week, the Michigan Senate narrowly passed a legislative package that would raise up to $1.5 billion in road funding — a plan that has already raised concerns among some Cass County officials.

Road Commissioner Pete Fournier, of Jones, delivered a report to the Cass County Board of Commissioners about the legislation during the board’s committee of the whole meeting Thursday evening in Cassopolis.

The road commissioner talked about the analysis of the Senate’s proposed solution released by the County Roads Association of Michigan.

The central tenet of the legislation Fournier pointed out in his report was the proposed gas tax hike, which is currently accessed at 19 cents a gallon. The Senate’s plan would raise the rate over the next two years, with two 4-cent increases going into effect in October and January, and an additional 7-cent increase taking place in 2017, effectively bringing the tax to 34 cents a gallon.

“The last 7-cent fuel tax…they will put that [revenue] into a ‘lock box’ called the ‘50 year-roads lockbox fund,’” Fournier said. “These funds will only be distributed after each House of the legislature approves a one-time resolution.”

Another central provision of the Senate’s plan is the creation of a Michigan Department of Transportation taskforce that would examine road materials and construction methods that would lead to the creation of roadways that would last 50 or more years, Fournier said.

The road commissioner was critical of the idea of the creation of a “lock box” fund, believing that such an initiative would greatly diminish state dollars for local road project, he said.

“We’re going to be back to where we were two or three years ago,” Fournier said. “The House and Senate are going to choose what projects we’re going to do.”

The Senate’s proposed plan comes on the heels of a plan passed in early June by the Michigan House of Representatives, which would increase road funding by around $1.16 billion. The bill package primarily focused on redistributing existing state sales and income taxes toward roads, as well as eliminating the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and slashing the budget of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. by $135 million.

The Senate proposal, on the other hand, is focused heavily on the gas tax hike. The increased tax may drive up gas prices as a result, which could end up having an effect on the Cass County economy, said Commissioner Roseann Marchetti

“We’re a border county,” Marchetti said. “People drive to Indiana to buy gas right now. Now we’re going to drive everybody to go to Indiana to buy gas.”

Marchetti pointed out that State Sen. Proos, who represents voters in Cass, Berrien and St. Joseph counties, voted against the particular bill calling for the gas tax increase.

“I could not support the gas tax increase because of the adverse impact that these increases would have on our border counties,” Proos said, in an email statement. “Once implemented fully, Michigan residents would pay 34 cents per gallon in motor fuels tax when compared to 18 cents per gallon in Indiana. This will drive motorists and businesses across our border into Indiana and hurt our hard-fought economic recovery.”

The House and Senate are expected to work over the summer to create a combined piece of legislation for approval by Gov. Rick Snyder.