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Whitmer to GOP Legislature: Stop ‘screwing around’ on roads

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, at her office in Lansing, Mich. She is seeking to pressure Republican legislative leaders to propose a "real" alternative to boosting road spending after they rejected her 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase. (AP Photo/David Eggert)

LANSING (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday that the Republican-led Legislature should stop “screwing around” and present her with a viable plan to raise up to $2.5 billion in new revenue for roads.
A legislative leader meanwhile accused Whitmer of fabricating a crisis and said lawmakers would pivot to finalize a state budget.
The war of words laid bare divisions between the Democratic governor and GOP legislators about a month before the Oct. 1 deadline to pass a spending plan. They are struggling to find consensus after Republicans’ rejection of a 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike she unveiled nearly six months ago.
“I am working to make sure we have a deal and avoid a shutdown. But it’s time for the Republican-led Legislature to get serious, to get back to work, to stop screwing around and to get it done,” said Whitmer, calling for GOP lawmakers to make public an alternative plan.
She said she will not sign a budget unless it includes a “real fix” to significantly boost spending on roads and public education.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, countered: “This is a fabricated crisis by my governor to try to tie in roads to the budget. … We will supply a budget to the governor. It will have record spending both for education and additional funding for roads.”
GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield, meanwhile, urged Whitmer to “work with us and come off of her insistence on a 45-cent gas tax.”
But Whitmer said the tax increase is an “honest solution,” one where the new revenue would be constitutionally dedicated to transportation. She noted it has the support of the business lobby and said people driving on crummy roads and grappling with vehicle damage should be skeptical of politicians who tell them “you can have everything and pay for nothing.”
“I don’t want to pay a gas tax, either,” Whitmer said. “But I also don’t want a chunk of concrete to come flying through my daughter’s windshield or see her sidelined in distress.”
She said she is open to alternatives but has yet to see a “real” counterproposal.
Shirkey, though, said four different road-funding options with “material, new revenue” have been given to Whitmer, but she has deemed them unacceptable. He declined to release specifics, except to add that the new revenue would be paired with spending cuts and the refinancing of debt.
Chatfield said the list of options “meets her in the middle.”
Whitmer has opposed borrowing $10 billion to boost the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System, freeing up money for additional annual road spending. On Wednesday, she also definitively ruled out extending the date by which unfunded liabilities in the pension plan would be paid off beyond 2038, calling it and the pension-bonding plans “fiscally bad ideas.”
One of the moves could reduce school spending in the short term by between $475 million and $800 million a year, making it easier to remove the sales tax on fuel that mostly goes to schools and municipalities — a House Republican priority — so an equivalent per-gallon tax increase could better fund roads.
“We cannot take MPSERS off the table in this negotiation,” Shirkey said. “It will be only a matter of a couple years before all school aid (fund) growth will be absorbed by increases in the obligation for our current payments. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to solve two problems at once.”
Whitmer also dug in, saying the GOP proposal to shift school aid funds to roads is “unacceptable.”
“I refuse to accept the status quo and I refuse to kick the can down the road,” she said.