Politics and Prejudices: The truth about our roads

Here's the bottom line on the proposal to raise the sales tax to fix the roads: If you vote yes May 5, there will be some major improvements in our horribly disgraceful roads.

Not only that, the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor will be fully restored. There will be some more money for schools and local governments. There will even be some new money for mass transit.

But if the voters reject Proposal 1, none of this will happen.

Don't delude yourselves: The legislature we have now, and will have for at least two more years, is dominated by right-wing anti-tax fanatics, who will do nothing to fix the roads, which will continue collapsing into rubble.

Even the ones who understand how nuts this is don't care very much that this is ruining our cars and the economy. They care only about not being defeated in their next primary by someone even more fanatically anti-tax than they are.

We really don't have any choice — unless, that is, you believe that we should let the roads completely fall apart, ruining many cars, driving business away, maiming and killing people. Because that really is the choice.

Yes, it's a lousy choice, and we have our legislature to thank for it. Most of all, an oaf-like creature named Jase Bolger, the not very bright former Speaker of the House.

Bolger was the man who refused to let the roads get fixed the way they should have been, by raising the gas tax. (Remember that — and check out his seamy political and business past, if this clown ever runs for anything else.)

Rather than allow lawmakers to do the job they were elected to do, he insisted on saddling us with a $10 million special election and a ballot proposal so complex it's virtually impossible to understand. The polls indicate it is going to lose.

Unfortunately, if true, this means we lose too.

There are all sorts of myths about why the roads are so bad. The truth is simple; we, and especially our elected so-called leaders, have been totally irresponsible.

We haven't spent the money we need to maintain our roads. Ohio also spends way too little on its roads — only 10 states spend less. But guess what: Ohio spends more than twice as much per person on them as we do.

Michigan, in spite of our harsh winters, spends less per capita on its roads than any other state in the union.

Give Gov. Rick Snyder credit for this much: Almost since he took office four years ago, he's been trying to get the legislature to raise the money to fix the roads, primarily by raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

The gas tax would probably have been the best way to do this. It provides some rough justice; those who drive the most pay the most; those who don't drive would pay nothing.

Gasoline prices fluctuate so wildly now that people would barely notice an extra dime per gallon, say. Especially now that gas is cheaper than it has been in many years.

I would have raised registration fees on those big heavy trucks far more than Snyder would have, but, hey, he's a Republican for a reason, right? But it scarcely matters; Snyder's fellow lawmakers contemptuously refused to even consider raising more money for the roads.

Meanwhile, the problem got worse and worse. Roads are not too different from teeth: Ignore a little cavity, and soon you may be looking at a much bigger and more expensive hole.

Finally, after the awful winter of 2013-14 did so much damage, then-Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) came around. As he said, all he was hearing from voters was "Just fix the damn roads."

He got a bill through the Senate, but alas, was sabotaged by Bolger. When Snyder first tried to get our attention about the roads, he estimated they could be brought back up to acceptable condition by spending $1.2 billion a year for a decade. Last year, former state Rep. Rick Olson did his own study and found the price tag had nearly doubled.

His estimate then was that it would have cost the state $2.18 billion to get our crumbling roads back in good to fair condition. What's more, he admitted doing that will take a tax increase. He told MLive at the time, "As a conservative Republican, I don't like the idea that we're somehow going to have to find this revenue," but he agreed, there's no way to find the money otherwise; "It's just not there."

Naturally, liberals and progressives would have preferred not to do this by raising the sales tax. But in case you have the idea that this is all some dark GOP plot, consider this:

Proposal 1 has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the Michigan Environmental Council, two of the most earth-friendly groups around. Former Sen. Carl Levin is backing it, as is John Dingell. So is the AFL-CIO.

Not every progressive is on board. One very senior Democrat told me he is irritated with many in his party. "No one is giving voice to (what should be) the primary Democratic objection to this: Individuals are increasingly paying more for the cost of government; corporations are not."

So I asked my favorite liberal economist, Michigan State University's Charles Ballard, what he thought. "I'm voting yes on Proposal 1," he told me. True, he agreed, the sales tax is a regressive source of revenue. "But a lot of low-income families will see a net increase in their incomes," thanks to the EITC.

"AND if we pass the road bill," he said, "they won't have to pay as much in what I call the 'pothole tax,' which is a very regressive tax."

The pothole tax is Ballard's name for the "car repairs that wouldn't have been necessary if we had decent roads." Ballard himself had the rims of two front wheels destroyed last year.

"It was a pain, but my income is such that I can afford it. But if a low-income family were to face the same repair, it would be much tougher." Politics is the art of the possible, even when the possibilities all seem to suck. Saying "up yours" is easy.

Coping with reality is harder. But very, very necessary.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.