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Brad Williams Testifies on Infrastructure Funding to Michigan House Transportation Committee

The following is testimony from Detroit Regional Chamber Vice President of Government Relations Brad Williams to the Michigan House Transportation Committee on Feb. 11, 2020. Watch the full testimony here. 

Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here to share the perspective of the Detroit Regional Chamber on this very important topic. Next month, will mark my twelve-year anniversary at the Detroit Regional Chamber, which means 3,132 workdays. I feel pretty confident in saying I have spent a portion of 3,000 of those days talking, educating, persuading, brainstorming, exasperating or spending some other portion of my day working on Michigan’s perpetual road funding crisis.

The Chamber, along with the majority of our friends in the business community, has consistently stood up and supported efforts to properly fund our transportation infrastructure. The Chamber applauded when Governor Snyder requested the Legislature increase taxes and fees by $1.2 billion in 2013. Since that time the Chamber has consistently stood up for plans that seriously addressed our road funding crisis. If the Gongwer archives are to be believed, we were the first major business organization to support Proposal 1 of 2015, which while imperfect and unpopular represented years of difficult legislative work and hard votes taken by legislators before you. That is how important we think this issue is to our economic competitiveness.

We did sit out the effort at the end of 2015 that resulted in some new road revenue, which was again a difficult legislative battle. The Chamber did not oppose the effort, but we were concerned with the reliance on general fund for road funding. We also correctly predicted that the insufficient funding would make voters less willing to support a real road funding fix at a future date.

You may have seen that recently, the Chamber released its public policy poll ahead of the Governor’s State of the State address. We do this on a regular basis to create a tool for policymakers to understand the issues that are on the minds of voters. We asked Michiganders an open-ended question about what they thought was the most important issue facing Michigan. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the condition of our roads and bridges was number one. It was identified by 29.5% of Michiganders as the top issue, jobs and the economy came in second at 18%. This cut across every demographic group we tracked, gender, race, geography, age, education, and partisanship. Also, a plurality of Michigan voters believe that the roads are getting worse (46.3%), or at least not getting better (40.2%).  But they think that you have enough money to fix it. As frustrating as it is, for someone who has spent the last twelve years trying to convince legislators that you need more money, 53.3% of your constituents believe you have enough money to fix the roads.

I think there are a few reasons this is true, beyond the fact that new taxes are never popular. First, as I alluded to earlier, previous Legislatures have consistently passed “solutions” that weren’t actual solutions to voters’ top concern, which feeds into their natural inclination to believe that government cannot get anything right.  The second reason is that our chronic underfunding leads to band-aid fixes on broken bones and voters are seeing the stretches of roads that were “fixed” last year with potholes popping up the next, leading them to understandably wonder if their tax dollars are being well spent.

There is some good news here though. Voters are more likely to support new revenue for roads if it is spent closer to home. When we asked voters who they would trust the most to spend new road revenue, 29.7% said their city or township, 29.7% said their county and 22.5% said the state.

So that leads us to where we are today. The Chamber supports the Legislature passing new dedicated revenue for transportation infrastructure at all levels of government.  We support a user fee-based model and are eager to explore new methods of revenue generation as we shift to new modes of transportation in the future. We are disappointed that the Legislature has failed to act on a comprehensive solution to our funding crisis that has been going on for decades, but more recently that the Legislature passed a budget in 2019 without a transportation funding solution. We believe that Governor Whitmer’s plan to strategically deploy the bonding capacity of the state to pull projects forward, to increase the life span of other fixes and create room on the five-year plan for still more projects is a prudent use of debt and that debt can should be used smartly even if new funding becomes available.

It has been noted here and elsewhere that bonding is not new funding. It is financing. Moreover, it is financing that does not address local road needs. We believe in a comprehensive funding solution that is user fee-based. We welcome ongoing conversation regarding House Bills 4963 and 4964 sponsored by you Mr. Chairman and your Vice-Chair as part of the mix. As I mentioned prior, voters in our poll affirmed what we already believed, that they are more willing to support new revenues for their roads closest to home. If giving voters assurances that they will have some control and that a portion of their taxes will stay home moves us forward we should seriously consider that conversation.

I appreciate the opportunity to share our views and am happy to take any questions you might have.