By Jack Lessenberry
---- — Do Michigan's lawmakers have the will to vote for some painful spending that is absolutely necessary if the state has any prayer of being economically competitive in years to come?
Spending that has to include steep fee increases and tax hikes that will affect virtually every adult in the entire state?
Well, we are about to find out.
Gov. Rick Snyder has made his top priority getting lawmakers to pass gasoline tax increases and hikes in car registration fees that will mean at least $1.2 billion in new revenue a year.
There's no doubt about the need for the spending. This is not money for new roads, or bridges to nowhere. This is merely, transportation experts agree, the minimum necessary to prevent the state's current roads and bridges from completely crumbling.
According to a study by the non-partisan Center for Michigan's Bridge Magazine, 88 percent of all Michigan's roads and streets eligible for federal funding were in good or fair shape back in 2004.
But two years ago, that had declined to just under 65 percent, and has likely fallen further still. The state hasn't been spending the money needed to maintain its roads for years.
The news gets worse. Almost half the state's roads aren't eligible for federal funding — and of those, only 10 percent were in good shape in 2011. Overdrive, a trucking magazine, recently rated the state's roads the second worst in the nation.
You don't have to be a site selection expert to realize businesses are not likely to move to a state where their employees are likely to break axles in potholes, and where overpasses drop pieces of concrete down onto their cars.
Accordingly, in his recent budget message, Snyder called on lawmakers to raise the wholesale gas tax by 14 cents a gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 19 cents, bringing both to 33 cents.
Additionally, he proposed steep vehicle registration fee hikes: 60 percent for cars and light trucks; 25 percent on heavy rigs.
Economically, it is hard to argue with the logic of the governor's proposal. If enacted, the fee increases are likely to cost the average motorist something like $250 a year.
That's not easy, especially for those already struggling. But according to the Bridge Magazine study, transportation officials estimated four years ago that bad roads cost the average car owner something like $370 a year in extra expenses, like repairs.
Nor are potholes and crumbling roads good for agriculture and tourism. Yet any lawmaker voting for any tax increases is apt to be attacked, especially Republicans, who may also face primary challenges as a result from the Tea Party.
The far-right group Americans for Prosperity alleged that no new money at all is needed to fix the roads, though about the only way you could get the needed fixes without tax increases would be to cut off all aid to higher education, or perhaps close down the prison system and set the Michigan's convicted felons free.
Last year, the governor might have been able to look to Democrats for some support that would make up for defecting Republicans. But after what they see as his betrayal on right-to-work, few Democrats are in the mood to do Snyder any favors.
And many citizens who might be helped most by better roads appear to just not understand what's at stake.
A woman who described herself as a low-income retiree from northern Michigan wrote, "I am supposed to swallow (higher) registration fees and a stiff increase in the gas tax so BIG business can enjoy smooth roads?"
Voters like this — and fanatics whose faith centers around the idea that all taxes are bad — will be a major problem for those who need to find the money to repair Michigan roads.
But if lawmakers don't find the political will to vote to raise taxes for the roads, one thing is perfectly clear: Things will get much worse.
Transportation officials estimate that the cost of bringing a road in fair condition up to good status is only one-fourth to one-fifth as expensive as repairing a road in truly bad condition.
This year, we're likely to learn how much common sense and statesmanship exist in Michigan's term-limited legislature.
Ethics? Who needs ethics? State Rep. Paul Opsommer, a Republican from the small town of DeWitt, was a fervent opponent of the proposed new bridge over the Detroit River.
As chair of the House Transportation Committee, he did his best to stymie the governor's efforts to build it, despite near-unanimous support from state business leaders.
Eventually, the governor found a constitutional loophole allowing him to reach an "interlocal" agreement with Canada to build the New International Trade Crossing anyway.
Thanks to term limits, Opsommer had to leave the Legislature in January. What did he do then? Why, take a job as a lobbyist for the man who owns the Ambassador Bridge, billionaire Matty Moroun, who spent tens of millions last fall on two ballot proposals aimed at crippling the International Trade Crossing effort.
The 59-year-old Opsommer, who also received campaign contributions from Moroun, is actually working for CenTra, Inc., the trucking company that is the foundation of the Moroun empire. He could do that because Michigan, unlike many other states, has no law preventing lawmakers and public officials from leaving office and immediately going to work for interests they were overseeing just days before.
Though Opsommer claimed there was no impropriety because he isn't working for the bridge company itself, editorials across the state indicated his deal doesn't pass the smell test.
While an ethics law is sorely needed, it might also be time to question whether term limits are a good idea. If a legislator knows he or she will soon need a job, are they likely to be tough on businesses and agencies that they may well need to employ them?
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.