Politics and Prejudices: Michigan leaders need to significantly raise taxes — so we don't drown on the freeway 

We need to demand that our leaders significantly raise taxes — now. That's right. I need and want to pay more, and if you are doing at all well, you should too.

Why? Because that would be better than drowning on the freeway. Or dying in a pothole-caused accident. Did you happen to somehow, like, notice what happened last week?

Metropolitan Detroit suffered what may well end up being billions of dollars in damage from that terrible storm.

This came after the snowiest and one of the coldest winters in this area's history. Do you think these events weren't related? Do you think this wasn't about climate change?

Then, my dears, you are dangerously or willfully ignorant.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts called what happened Monday night a "once in 200-year storm." That would have been true before 1950. Henry Pollack, a geophysicist at the University of Michigan, told me that's about the time human activity became the major force for climate change.

But Fouts is probably wrong now. We'll likely see lots more of this sort of thing. Scientists have told me that by 2050, our climate will more closely resemble North Carolina's, maybe even that of Arkansas. That transition is bound to be tempestuous. Even if it is many years before we get another rain to match the Aug. 11 storm, we still need to raise taxes.

That's because our infrastructure is crumbling. We have neglected it for years. Spending taxpayer dollars for new storm drains or for a better roadbed is not exciting or sexy.

So we largely stopped doing it. Well, this was the year the piper stepped up and presented his bill. Two bills, actually

First, we started learning during our horrendous winter just how bad the roads were. Gov. Rick Snyder may be a servant of the rich, but he is also a rational businessman.

He knows you need roads to move goods and workers. Two years ago, the experts calculated that, at a minimum, the state needed to come up with $1.2 billion a year in new money to stop our roads from crumbling further and get the bad ones back in shape. Snyder asked his fellow Republicans, the guys who control the legislature, to come up with that money. They literally sneered at him. Then, this year, the bill came due.

Suddenly, it was clear to all how bad the roads are, and that they were getting worse. State Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville finally saw the light. Before this, he had labeled Snyder's efforts to fix the roads as "dead on arrival."

This spring, he threw himself into an effort to get some serious money for the roads, though not nearly enough.

His fellow lawmakers had seen the potholes, heard from angry constituents, knew what was at stake here.

So know what happened?

Nothing at all. No significant new money was appropriated to fix the roads. That, you see, would cost money. Meaning, new taxes paid by the citizens.

And the collection of ignorant ideologues and venal cowards — not all of them Republicans — who pretend to represent us refused to vote for that. Never mind that most of the voters were telling them, as one said, "Just fix the damn roads." Never mind that businesses need the roads fixed, too.

They were terrified at the thought of maybe losing their little, temporary $71,685 salaries.

Michigan was once a state that had leaders who weren't afraid to challenge their voters to make a difference.

Michigan, when I was a child, had leaders of both parties who weren't afraid to occasionally ask us to make — gasp — sacrifices for the future. What a quaint idea!

Gov. George Romney was a pretty conservative Republican. But in the 1960s, he insisted on pushing through a state income tax, because he knew we were living in a modern world, not a John Wayne movie. He knew what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, knew a century ago: "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society."

Trouble is, we've now forgotten that. Ever since we elected a half-senile movie actor president in 1980, we've been told, over and over, that we are overtaxed and all taxes are bad.

Consequently, we have neglected our infrastructure. Want to hear a scandal far more terrible than Bill Clinton fooling around with whatever woman was closest?

Part of the reason the freeways were so devastated is that most of the pumping stations designed to keep them from flooding are in bad shape. According to Jeff Cranson, director of communications for MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, 58 percent of them are in poor shape.

Only a fifth of the stations are in good shape. Some of the others don't work at all because scrappers have torn out the wiring! The state doesn't fix them because our lawmakers, influenced by yahoos like the Tea Party, won't provide MDOT with anything like the money they need to protect us.

Fixing or replacing a single pumping station costs about $1.5 million, Cranson said. The system's entire operations budget is only $4 million, and there is never enough money for maintenance. Would a network of perfectly tuned pumping stations have been enough to stop some freeways from flooding Aug. 11? Probably not. But things might have been better.

For me, this is not just a theoretical analysis. With just a trifle less luck (or more, depending on your politics) the Great Flood of 2014 might have caused last week's column to have been my last. I was trying to travel east to west that night.

Eventually, I found myself literally in a river of mostly sewage in Warren on one of the mile roads, and the electric displays on my car started shorting out. The woman in front of me jumped out of her car into the water.

Somehow, I turned around and got out of there. Many hours later, I limped home to survey the mess in my basement. Yet I was luckier than a lot of people, and far better off than anyone in Gaza, or maybe Chad, any day.

However, forget my tale of woe; I was lucky enough to have insurance. The point is that if our leaders don't start spending to fix the roads and bridges, storm sewers and water mains, we will all find the true cost of their neglect probably sooner rather than later. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If we don't admit that, Aug. 11 might someday look pretty mild. The best and cheapest thing would be to admit we need to raise taxes and pay what we need to fix all this now.

Otherwise, we'll pay much more, over and over, in lost axles, lost jobs and opportunities, lost lives and property, and lower quality of life. Common sense, comrades. Let's give it a try.

Meanwhile, back in Lansing

Let's give them credit: Our dedicated legislators did show up to work the day after the historic flood. However, they did not talk about the disaster.

They didn't ram through a bill to fix the roads, either. No, the state senate had just one agenda: Ram through a bill to prevent the people from having a statewide vote on a referendum outlawing wolf hunting.

Political scientists call what we have representative democracy, and in some crazy way that's right. Our elected officials represent the handful of special interests that give to their campaigns, and often employ them after they leave.

Aren't you happy the system works for somebody?

More by Jack Lessenberry

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