Don’t hold the state budget hostage for roads

I have followed Michigan’s road woes closely and have written a number of pieces this year about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed increase in the state’s gas tax.

And, just as all of us would have expected, there has been a lot of talk thus far from all sides of the issue, but little movement one way or the other.

It’s like watching ping-pong as opponents and proponents volley back and forth.

In the last week or two, things have begun growing more interesting, as it looks more and more realistic that the governor is going to use the state budget as a bargaining chip in the negotiating process.

Personally, I hope that will not be the case. I do not relish returning to the Jennifer Granholm -era budgets that never were passed on time and left people like school superintendents with no idea as to what, ultimately, they would receive from the state.

But the political arena obviously is anything but neat and clean, and, for Whitmer, tying the gas tax increase with the budget makes perfect sense, as it gives her political leverage.

In a recent report from the Michigan Information and Research Service, Whitmer confirmed to their reporter that she would not sign any budget that didn’t include a road funding piece. She threatened to keep the Legislature in Lansing all summer, if need be, to get the two addressed. The Legislature generally adjourns for several weeks of the summer for legislators to return to their districts.

In that same report, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said that the two issues — road funding and the budget process — are separate issues and will be treated as such by legislators. But he did offer this up in the MIRS report: As for a road-funding piece, of course there will be money in the budget for roads.

What he did not say, however, is whether that money is part of Whitmer’s proposal or not.

As this all plays itself out in the weeks ahead, watch for this interesting northern Michigan connection to the debate: Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas. Our state senator will control the destiny of Whitmer’s budget through the Appropriations Committee which he chairs.

The reality is that Whitmer and GOP leaders can debate all they want over the merits of the budget and the particulars within it, but it will be Stamas that holds the budget’s fate in his hands. He can slow the process down or speed it up, whichever seems most expedient to him. As long as the budget sits in Senate Appropriations, Stamas is in control. In many ways, it is the most important position to be in during this process.

Stamas understood that fact last year when he and Shirkey both had their sights on the Senate majority leader position. Rather than turn their interests into a GOP power struggle that would force fellow legislators to pick sides, the two agreed to share leadership, with Shirkey assuming the majority leader’s role and Stamas controlling the Appropriations Committee. It was a solid solution that left both winners.

Sometimes, it seems as if Lansing might as well be a million miles away — at least area residents think that. But, at budget times like these, with with Stamas now in a position of influential leadership, it bridges that distance and makes this budget-setting process much more interesting.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.