Bad roads, broken system: Time for a new constitution

Spineless, gutless cowards.

Selfish tools of the special interests.

Short-sighted, small-minded, willfully ignorant losers. That would be a pretty fair description of the Michigan legislature, though some would say that's a little too kind.

Less than two weeks ago, they stuck it to us once again. Instead of doing their jobs and passing a transportation package to fix the roads, they punted, sticking us with the decision and the cost.

They didn't vote any new money to fix the roads, even though the state constitution plainly says they are supposed to.

Our lawmakers instead shoved a sales tax increase on the May ballot, loaded it with various goodies to make it hard for anyone to vote against it, and saddled us with the expense of a $10 million special election we have to hold because they won't do their jobs.

Then they left us holding the bag, and left town.

Nobody who is sane doubts that the roads are badly in need of repair. Yes, we should be investing more in mass transit and alternative ways of travel. Even if we did, however, we still would need roads for the foreseeable future, and ours are nearly the worst in the nation. We may be the Automobile State, but we have been spending less on them, per person, than any other, and it shows.

This is driving away business, and is costing people far more money in car repairs than any tax to fix the roads would, especially in metropolitan Detroit. Gov. Rick Snyder tried for three years to get lawmakers to fix the roads. They refused to do a thing, until last year's horrible weather produced so many potholes citizens got angry.

Finally, they thought they had a deal to raise the gas tax to do it ... until it was killed by one of the less intelligent creatures to ever be Speaker of the Michigan House, Jase Bolger.

Bolger came up with a bizarre plan to fix the roads without increasing taxes, by instead essentially stealing that proportion of sales tax revenue meant for the schools. His sheep passed it.

Even his fellow Republicans in the state Senate knew this was a terrible idea. But Moonface wouldn't hear of raising taxes. "I think he's delusional and thinks he is going to run for governor next time and this will get him votes," a Lansing insider said.

Even Richard McLellan, another longtime Lansing insider, attorney and the ultimate conservative Republican political fixer knew how nuts this was. He posted on Facebook that "many Republicans do not understand the difference between capital-infrastructure spending and operating expenses."

Not only that, but, he added that the Michigan Constitution specifically requires that the legislature to "impose taxes sufficient with other resources to pay the expenses of state government."

The Constitution even specifically says those expenses include "constructing, reconstructing, financing and maintaining state, county, city and village roads, streets and bridges designed primarily for the use of motor vehicle using tires."

Couldn't be more clear than that.

But this presumes Bolger cares about his constitutional duty; he doesn't. Indeed, he got in difficulty two years ago, and drew a grand jury investigation for his part in trying to rig an election.

He also may have an aversion to taxes because the business he owns, Summit Credit Services, has a long history of payroll tax delinquency, with multiple liens filed against it by both the state treasury department and the Internal Revenue Service.

But he had the power, and in any event, Bolger was able to hold the state hostage. So, in desperation, the only thing the rest of the leadership could do was to put a suggested sales tax hike on the ballot next May. Republicans love doing it this way, because then nobody can blame them for raising taxes; the voters did it to themselves.

Democrats rightly hate the idea of raising the sales tax for anything, because it punishes the poor: Ninety-year-old pensioners who no longer drive would have to pay to fix the roads.

So to get Democratic support, everyone agreed to make the ballot proposal a Christmas tree: Vote for road funding, and the schools get $300 million more! The Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, cut to give business a tax break, will be fully restored!

In fact, a token $112 million will be set aside for the state's "Comprehensive Transportation Fund," which means mass transit.

Yet at the same time, to penalize anyone trying to escape the internal combustion engine, cars that use alternative fuels — even hybrids — will be sharply penalized with higher registration fees.

Otherwise, however, the non-transportation sweeteners attached to the sales tax are so sweet that even if the sales tax for the roads bill is passed, most of the money won't go ... to the roads.

At least not at first; they'll only get $400 million the first year, ramping up to $1.2 billion or so over three years. Meanwhile, "while we wait, Michigan's infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and costs will increase," Joanna Johnson, the savvy managing director of the Kalamazoo County Road Commission told me.

She wonders and worries what the voters' expectations will be if they do pass the tax increase. "All roads paved and in good condition?" Not happening. She knows, as does everyone in her business, that this won't produce nearly enough money.

We'll be lucky, she told me, if this badly needed new revenue is even enough to "just maintain our existing road and bridge conditions and fund our maintenance operations." But she knows if people don't vote for the money, it means real disaster.

Thanks a lot, lawmakers.

And thanks for sticking us with the costs of a special election. By the way, there's no guarantee this will pass. Think last month's turnout was terrible? Wait till you see how many people bother to show up for a special election in May. Know who will show up?

Tea Party fanatics who would oppose any new taxes, even if the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor again. The Koch Brothers' misnamed Americans for Prosperity will be out there spending money and spewing lies against the ballot proposal. So will various local idiots.

And whether they succeed or not, this much is clear:

State government in Michigan is broken.

What we need is a new convention to write a new state constitution. One that gets rid of term limits, which have paralyzed our ability to govern. One that allows for a graduated income tax.

We need a constitution that requires that those donating large sums to influence our elections identify themselves. We need one that forbids the lawmakers to ignore a statewide vote of the people, as they have with the anti-wolf-hunting and emergency manager laws.

We need to have legislative and congressional reapportionment done by a nonpartisan commission, and stop having political parties determine who will sit on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Twelve years from now, we are scheduled to have a statewide vote on whether to have a constitutional convention. But I don't think we can wait that long. Someone needs to start a movement to get this on the ballot next year and then make it happen.

Michigan, in my youth, used to be a pretty wonderful place to live. Sometimes, government even did the right thing for the people.

We can get our state back, if we want to.

Yes, it would be hard and take a lot of work.

But as this lousy old year ends and a new one begins ...

Why not give it a try? — mt

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