Michigan’s Democratic governor wants to fix our roads before they get any worse.
Republicans who control the state Legislature agree the roads are a mess, but insist they need to address our highest-in-the-nation auto insurance premiums before they do anything else.
If you’re one of the 7 million drivers obliged to navigate those roads and pay those premiums, it’s like listening to a couple of trauma surgeons argue about where to start suturing while you bleed to death on the operating table.
The obvious solution to this partisan standoff is a grand bargain for Michigan motorists — one that guarantees auto policy holders some reduction in premiums while extracting a larger share of their paychecks to make up for decades of under-investment in the state’s roads and bridges.
It won’t be a wash, of course, at least not in the short term, because that’s not how investments work. You front money now, then hope the return on your investment will eventually pay dividends that exceed your initial stake.
Although Republicans will likely argue that motorists should be asked to give up no more in higher gas taxes than they can recoup from reduced costs for insurance coverage and vehicle repair, it’s unreasonable to expect that the latter will quickly yield enough savings to offset the cost of bringing Michigan’s neglected infrastructure up to snuff
But the notion of leavening an unpopular gas tax hike with a noticeable reduction in auto insurance premiums, however modest, should appeal to legislators in both parties.
And although Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) continues to insist that lawmakers must deliver insurance reform before asking taxpayers to pay more for gas or vehicle registration fees, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is unlikely to sign any auto insurance overhaul before securing assurances that GOP legislators will address her a road repair bill that estimated at $2.5 billion.
So how far away is such a grand bargain?
The good news is that GOP lawmakers are no longer challenge the legitimacy of the $2.5-billion price tag Whitmer, former Gov. Rick Snyder and a slew of bi- or non-partisan groups have put on restoring 90 percent of Michigan roads to at least minimally safe conditions.
“I think that this $2.5 to 2.6 [billion dollars] number has now survived two administrations,” Shirkey told a press gaggle in Lansing last week. “So, I think we can safely conclude that is a consensus we can rally around.”
While that observation may sound anodyne, Shirkey’s embrace of Whitmer’s $2.5-billion target represents a tacit admission that the GOP legislative leaders who preceded him grossly underestimated the severity of the roads crisis when their own party’s governor was in charge.
The mathematical consensus frays considerably when you ask the two sides how close they are to raising the $2.5 billion everyone agrees is needed.
By the reckoning of Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, the state got almost halfway toward that target in Snyder’s second terms, when the Legislature earmarked $1.2 billion for road repairs. Whitmer and her Democratic legislative colleagues say most of that amount was either based on optimistic tax revenue projections or diverted from the siphoned from the state’s colleges and universities.
But if Whitmer is certain to get less than the 45-cent gas tax hike she’s asked legislators to impose, in three installments, by October 2020, Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have conceded that the state will have to find new revenue somewhere. So it’s a safe bet the two sides will eventually agree to a more modest gas tax hike implemented in more numerous installments spread over a longer period of time — assuming they can also reach the auto insurance compromise that has eluded several previous Legislatures.
Years before he ran for president, the late Sen. John McCain summarized the decades-long partisan standoff over insurance reform succinctly: “The problem is, the Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers,” McCain observed, “and we Republicans are in the pocket of insurance companies.”
The politics of auto insurance reform have become more complex since Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan enlisted on the side of Republicans seeking a dramatic overhaul of the no-fault system. But the core debate between insurers (who want to cap medical benefits for Michigan accident victims) and hospitals and lawyers (who favor less draconian cost-reduction measures) has persisted.
The election of Detroit legislators sympathetic to Duggan’s priorities, the diminishing influence of no-fault champion L. Brooks Patterson (whose party lost seats in Oakland County’s legislative delegation), and the muscular support of Detroit developer Dan Gilbert make it more likely that legislation to secure at least a short-term reduction in auto insurance costs (and benefits) will advance this session.
But nothing would be more conducive to a resolution of both crises — unaffordable car insurance, and roads unfit to drive on — than elected leaders determined to yoke their priorities in a grand bargain that serves everyone who drives, ships or rides along.
I just hope we don’t lose too much more blood while the surgeons are hashing out their differences