JACK SPENCER: Moderates just won’t compromise

The word is c-o-m-p-r-o-m-i-s-e; the end-product of give and take, allowing reason to prevail over stubborn single-mindedness, the art of settling for half a loaf. “Moderates;” those who claim they dwell in the wide middle lands of the political spectrum, preach that the great failing of the political right and political left is an unwillingness to compromise.

However, the recent deal Michigan lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder struck on road funding appears to be just the latest example of so-called “moderates” in government refusing to compromise.

Over the past several years those seeking a new funding stream for roads have remained focused like a laser on doing it with a big tax increase. Efforts to get them to think in terms of diverting some already existing funding first have been futile. They simply will not compromise on their insistence that special interests in Lansing need not share in the sacrifices they want taxpayers to bear.

In total, the deal is a $2.15 billion tax hike. With the exception of a comparatively small portion of the plan, the road funding deal will only happen if voters approve a May 5 statewide ballot proposal. The centerpiece of this proposal is to hike the state Sales tax from six percent to seven percent. Maybe a majority of voters who turn out to vote on that day will say “yes” — but it appears that the odds are stacked against that happening.

If the proposal is defeated, those who cobbled the deal together should blame the failure on their own tunnel vision and steadfast refusal to compromise. House Republicans put forth a conservative road funding plan that didn’t involve a tax increase. Those who have been pushing to raise taxes to get road funding dollars saw that plan as being too weak, too speculative and too slow. That’s OK, they’re entitled to that viewpoint, but instead of using the House plan as a potential building block for a comprehensive compromise; it was (or certainly seemed to have been) summarily rejected.

That, in a nutshell, explains how Michigan’s road funding problem has been allowed to worsen. Any suggestion that the required money — or even just some of it — might come from anything other than a tax hike has been treated with scorn. Had the attitude in Lansing been different, the road funding puzzle might well have been solved long before now.

Even the current proposal could have been made easier to sell to the voters if it included some degree of government belt-tightening. There are plenty of programs, including those that receive relatively small appropriations — $500,000, $1 million or $2 million, which most voters would consider dispensable, and the vast majority consider less important than road funding.

Yet, because the funding for such programs doesn’t add up to what policymakers consider “significant enough” dollars, the idea of cutting or eliminating them and using the savings for roads is never part of the road funding conversation.

It’s interesting that the government-centric mindset operates in this way. Would any sane person dispute that symbolism can often be a powerful political tool and — at times — the single most powerful of political tools? Nevertheless, the possibility of doing some budget cutting so officials could say, “your government has been trimming back — but still needs more revenue,” is either completely dismissed or never even contemplated.

Apparently the commitment to serve special interests is so embedded in the fabric of state government that it stymies any sort of political creativity. As a result, all that state politicians have offered up is a tax hike to fix and maintain roads — without including anything they could honestly claim had sweetened the deal for the taxpaying public.

Ultimately, promoting the May 5 proposal comes down to saying: “our roads are crumbling, so please say ‘yes’ to footing the bill for fixing them.” This is a distinctly uninspired sales pitch, especially when individual voters have no guarantee the specific roads they most often use would be improved any time soon.

Michigan’s highways, roads and bridges need to be repaired and maintained — virtually no one disagrees about that. But at the moment the issue is coming down to a roll of the dice effort to obtain a tax hike upon which Lansing insiders have become fixated.

If the voters reject this “increase your own taxes to fix the roads” proposal, the Governor and legislature will be forced to try something else. It is hoped that, in that event, they will consider pursuing a road funding solution that represents a true compromise. And to have the best chance of succeeding, such a compromise should be struck between the elected government officials and the taxpayers.