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Snyder backs absentee voter reforms, call for money for roads

By Chad Livengood and Gary Heinlein

January 16, 2013

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder called on the Legislature in Wednesday night’s State of the State address to allow no-reason absentee voting, reform no-fault auto insurance and find a way to raise $1.2 billion in additional annual funding to fix the state’s crumbling roads.

The Republican governor’s transportation department director, Kirk Steudle, said the state needs $120 more annually from each vehicle in the state from a combination of gas tax and registration fees to raise enough money to fix roads and bridges.

Snyder opened his nearly one-hour speech by touting data showing Michigan’s economic fortunes are reversing after a decade of decline. Nearly 177,000 jobs have been created since August 2009, home sales were up 10 percent last year and the state population increased in 2012 for the first time since 2004, Snyder said.

Before the address, a couple of hundred union supporters protested outside the Capitol over last month’s passage of the right-to-work law. Snyder hinted about the divisive issue, without mentioning the law by name.

“I wish it wouldn’t have happened,” Snyder said of the right-to-work division. “I hope we can work together, I hope we can work to avoid those kind of situations.”

Democrats said the governor’s reference to the lame-duck session were insincere.

“The elephant in the room was right to work and that wasn’t addressed very well,” Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said after the speech.

Snyder also renewed his call for lawmakers to pass legislation overhauling the governance of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and asked lawmakers to approve expansion of the Education Achievement Authority from running 15 failing schools in Detroit to 50 schools statewide that persistently have low test scores.

He called for campaign finance reform, creating a Department of Insurance and Financial Services, passing legislation that would crack down on “slumlords” who don’t pay taxes and pursuing the next generation 911 emergency system.

He said he’ll hold three summits on economic development, education and the Great Lakes and detail new state plans on land use in May and energy strategy in December.

Snyder also named former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds to head the Metro Detroit regional transit authority.

Snyder and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson are teaming up to get the Legislature to allow residents to register to vote online and vote absentee without a reason — such as disability or being out of town — up to 45 days before Election Day.

Michigan is one of 21 states where an excuse is required to vote absentee, while 27 other states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to cast aabsentee ballot without an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twelve states have online voter registration with three others on the way with legislation passed to start the paperless registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We want to make it convenient and secure for everybody,” Johnson said after the speech.

Jocelyn Benson, interim dean of Wayne State University’s Law School, said she supports no-reason absentee voting and online registration, “but the devil is in the details.”

“Last year, for example, the Legislature claimed to propose a no-reason absentee voting bill that actually would have added ID requirements to absentee voting, increasing barriers to the vote,” said Benson, who lost to Johnson in 2010.

Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing and House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills said they were disappointed Snyder didn’t talk about an investment in public education.

Snyder may talk of bipartisanship and transparency, but his words flew in face of his actions with right-to-work legislation, they said. “The proof is in the pudding,” Greimel said.

Raising road money

Snyder renewed previous endorsements of hiking motor vehicle registration fees and changing the 19-cents-per-gallon gas tax to a percentage tax based on the wholesale rate that can grow with inflation and rising oil prices. He also wants to change the state’s 62-year-old road funding formula.

“We can decide how long we want to argue about it, how political we want to make it, or we can just use some common sense and get it done,” Snyder said about road funding.

Snyder emphasized the economic and safety benefits of having better roads — from fewer flat tires and vehicle repairs to jobs for road construction firms and an estimated 100 fewer highway deaths annually.

“There’s no price you can put on that,” Snyder said.

Snyder’s road funding plan lacked details on how much it would cost average drivers. Aides say he’s deferring to the Legislature to formulate a plan.

“If we put a number out there, it’s going to be immediately attacked,” Bill Rustem, the governor’s director of strategy and policy, told reporters before the speech.

Earlier in the day, Snyder met separately with House and Senate leaders from both parties — and the road funding pitch with no details didn’t go over well with Democrats.

“It was very vague in terms of how he wanted to raise the $1.2 billion,” said House Minority Floor Leader Rudy Hobbs, D-Southfield. “On purpose, I’m sure.”

Hobbs said Democrats have no appetite for raising taxes and fees on middle-class motorists when taxpayers are starting absorb the GOP majority’s elimination of numerous income tax breaks in 2011 to help pay for a $1.8 billion business tax cut.

“With the huge shift in taxes from corporations to the middle-class taxpayers, we’re not looking to increase that burden,” Hobbs said. “It’s just not feasible right now.”

Snyder said 12,000 more jobs could be created if the state spent an additional $1.2 billion annually on roads.

The governor wants lawmakers to move quickly on putting together a plan early this year that would initially raise $1.2 billion and grow to $1.5 billion by 2015, Rustem said.

Rustem acknowledged the governor is making a political calculation by seeking passage of a road funding overhaul early this year.

“The closer you get to the 2014 elections, the harder it’s going to get,” Rustem said.

Snyder has hinted he will seek a second term in 2014, but has not made any formal announcement.

Gas tax revenues have dropped

Gasoline tax revenues have declined every year for a decade as motorists have switched to more fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrids or are driving less because of the price of gas.

The transportation industry has suggested eliminating the per-cent gasoline tax and setting a new levy at 12 percent of the wholesale price, which is about $2.60 a gallon for regular unleaded.

“I would say (12 percent is) in the neighborhood of what it’s going to take to solve the problem,” Steudle told The Detroit News.

MDOT did not have revenue estimates available for what a 12 percent tax would raise, but revenue from the existing per-gallon excise tax on gas, diesel and propane-fueled vehicles dropped from $1.08 billion in fiscal year 2002 to $945.6 million in 2012.

MDOT estimates if the state continues to spend just roughly $3 billion a year providing minimum maintenance to state, county and local roads, repair costs will balloon to $25 billion in 10 years, Steudle said.

About 87 percent of state trunk line roads are rated good or fair, according to MDOT.

If no additional money is infused into the road system over the next decade, Steudle said, just 38 percent of main thoroughfares will be in good or fair condition.

“At 38 percent, we’re going to have a lot gravel state trunk lines,” he said.

Snyder now needs to sell the road funding plan to skeptical outstate legislators by saying that better highways and byways won’t just benefit urban areas, said Brad Williams, director of governmental relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“It’s hard to get cherries to the world if we’re not keeping U.S. 31 in good condition,” Williams said.

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Detroit News Staff Writer Marisa Schultz contributed.