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Gov. Whitmer ready with “Plan B” for road money

Michigan Public Radio Network
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her second State of the State address Wednesday night.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she’s ready to go-it-alone to come up with money to pay for road repairs. That’s if Republicans won’t support her proposal for a fuel tax increase.

That was the message Whitmer delivered in her second State of the State speech Wednesday night.

Whitmer strode to the podium, shook hands with House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and then as the two Republican leaders looked on, announced she’s ready to work around them.

“I am not here to play games,” she said as Democrats broke into applause.

“… For those of you who want to keep on playing games, I’m going to press on without you. I’m going to use the power of my office to do what I said I was going to do. Because for me, for Michigan, impatience is a virtue.”

The governor said Republicans refused to consider her plan unveiled last year to increase the fuel tax by 45 cents a gallon, so “that’s why it’s time for Plan B.”

Whitmer’s “Plan B” would raise an estimated $3.5 billion by selling bonds. Unlike the governor’s proposed fuel tax increase, that bond sale would not have to be approved by the Legislature. The Michigan Transportation Commission has already set a Thursday meeting to vote on the plan, and approval is considered likely, especially since interest rates are very low.

And, the idea has not been ruled out by Republican leaders.

“The devil is in the details,” said Shirkey. “That is a perfectly legitimate asset management policies that apply not just to big government, but to businesses.”  

But Shirkey says he wants to make sure any deal doesn’t drag on so long that taxpayers are still footing the bill once it becomes necessary to repair the roads again. 

Also, no one considers bond sales a permanent solution that would ensure roads are fixed and maintained.

Chatfield says his starting point is requiring all sales and fuel taxes collected at the pump are used on roads.

“All the money at the pump right now is not going to the roads,” he said. “As long as all the money is not going to the roads, we’re going to have a problem in our state.”

Some of the other options under discussion include toll roads or bridges, and weight limits on trucks.

On other topics, Whitmer also wants a program to help low-income women with access to birth control and pre-natal and early childhood healthcare.

She also called on the Legislature to adopt a law to ensure pre-existing conditions are covered by health insurance in case parts of the federal Affordable Care Act are struck down.

“Dismantling the ACA would be disastrous for our state and devastating for our people,” she said. “One of the most important ACA provisions prohibits an insurance company from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.”

The governor’s State of the State address and re-launch of bargaining with the Legislature comes as she’s gaining a more prominent national profile. Whitmer’s been selected by Democrats to deliver the party’s official response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

That raises the political stakes and adds a degree of partisan intrigue during a presidential election year. Michigan is expected to be competitive with candidates criss-crossing the state on roads that are or are not being fixed.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.