There are a lot of cross-currents of thought regarding the upcoming Proposal 1 vote here in Michigan. If it passes, Michigan will see an adjustment to fuel taxes, a hike in the sales (or use) tax, an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit (effectively a tax cut for some), some new rules on the use of money in the School Aid Fund, and, hopefully, better roads and better schools. As the lead author of The Gas Game blog, I want to take a look at the roads/gas tax piece of the proposal.
You should know, though, where I am coming from politically. I am not a conservative who is against all taxes, and the government-is-too-big-and-too-oppressive ideology is not in my wheelhouse. I consider myself a moderate Democrat, but I’m not against Proposal 1 because Gov. Snyder is for it. I want my government – of the people, by the people, for the people – to work efficiently and work well. So, the question I want to consider is whether or not the roads/gas tax piece is responsible direction for our State government to go in.
I have seen on TV and have received by mail a lot of advertising in support of Proposal 1. (It isn’t clear if the ads are making a difference, as polls indicate alack of support for the proposal. I’ve only seen a few “NO ON 1” yard signs.) There are many messages in the ads, but the one that caught my attention recently was this: Michigan spends lesson roads per person than any other state. Is that true, or at least close to true? I decided to do some investigating.
What is wonderful about the Internet age is that information is usually available at your fingertips, as opposed to trying to track it down at a library, or not having the information available at all. Using publicly-available data, some from the federal government, I’ve put together a spreadsheet that focuses on the “Big Ten states”. Specifically, I’ve collected in this spreadsheet items such as number of highway miles, population, current fuel taxes, fuel tax revenue, federal spending on roads in each state, and overall spending. (Links to the data sources are in the spreadsheet.)
My underlying assumption is that states that have Big Ten universities tend to have similar weather and traffic, and therefore similar road use and abuse. (We can argue about this assumption, but I think it is fair to say that southern states have to deal a lot less with potholes and many of their Interstate highways were designed and built later in the 20th century, and hence built based on the northern states’ experience. For example, the narrow and problematic I-94 through Michigan.)
Looking over the data, I decided that the best way to compare these states is by looking at the combination of recent annual Federal and state spending for each mile of road. As you can see, in nearby Ohio, about $24,000 is spent per year on the average mile of road. In Pennsylvania, it is $30,000. In Nebraska, a little more than $6000, while in Michigan, it is a bit more than $16,000 per mile of road per year.
Another comparison, for those more tax-focused, is that federal and state road spending works out to about $199 per person in Michigan, which, other than New Jersey, is the lowest in the Big Ten states. I suspect New Jersey is lower because it has a lot more people packed into a smaller area, so the denominator in computing this number is a lot larger.
Now, I do think that Ohio and Pennsylvania are better states to compare to Michigan than Nebraska and New Jersey (hey, those states just joined the Big Ten recently!), and I come away from my study with the recognition that we do not devote tax dollars to our roads in the way that our neighboring states do. (And, therefore, our roads are worse!)
In addition, as you see in columns F-H, Michigan’s fuel tax is below the average, and the revenue from the fuel tax isn’t exactly beating out other states. Nor, interestingly, is the federal funds per person (column J). So, not only are we paying less in state taxes to fix our roads, we aren’t getting the money from Washington to fix our roads like other states are!
So, what can we conclude at this point? In comparing Michigan to other Big Ten states, we could be spending more to fix our roads, and we would have better roads. We could become an “average Big Ten state” by increasing our gas tax and getting more money from Washington. Despite the goal of The Gas Game to buy gas as cheaply as possible, I would support increasing the gas tax, provided that this money is clearly marked for road repairs above and beyond what we already spend. I also support on-going adjustments to fuel taxes so that the users of the roads end up paying what is needed to maintain high-quality roads.
As far as the rest of Proposal 1, I like the idea of warranties for road projects, and strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit. I’m not happy about the idea of increasing the sales tax, since we just cut taxes to businesses a few years ago, so this has a shell game feel to it, with the working class and middle class getting the empty shell. I don’t know what to believe about the School Aid Fund.
And I’m sick of the game where Republicans cut taxes and budgets and things fall apart, and the Democrats raise taxes and budgets and fix things. As a Democrat, I want to see the Republicans, who worked so hard to get control of the state government, to have to do the responsible thing and vote for higher spending on roads in the Legislature, and not go through this Proposal 1 carnival. Or, if they simply can’t do what needs to be done, for the people to understand this and vote them out for this reason. I agree with this comment from “Martin Pollard” in the comment section of an article about Proposal 1: “It's also anger directed against a legislature that refuses to do its … job and instead punts the issue over to the voters, thereby keeping their precious hands clean.”
I still haven’t decided how I will vote on May 5.