JACK SPENCER: Road funding: Getting the priorities right

Michigan has it backwards. Our state government spends $300 million annually on corporate welfare, or as those in government prefer to call it, “economic development,” then it debates how to pay for fixing the roads. It should be the other way around; fix the roads first and then have a debate over whether or not government should dabble in “economic development.”

Keeping our roads in good repair is a core governmental function. Using public dollars to bet on which companies might grow and succeed or as bribery to entice them to come to Michigan isn’t. What’s more, when it comes to economic development, government’s batting average is abysmal. That’s not surprising considering that the investments (or bets) are made by politicians with money that belongs to other people (the public).

Year in, year out, over the past decade, state officials and the coalition pushing for more road and bridge money have fallen back on tax or fee increases as their recommended method of getting the funds. Year in, year out, voters send the message to politicians that another way of doing it should be found. The very predictable result of this circular process is that nothing gets accomplished and our roads continue to deteriorate.

This year, the House Republicans are starting out on a more promising note. They’ve introduced a plan that would use existing resources to come up with an annual $500 million funding stream for roads. That is about a third of way toward the $1.5 billion that officials say will be needed. If the $300 million that the state spends annually on corporate welfare (a.k.a. economic development) was added to the mix; that would bring the new road funding dollars up to $800 million, more than halfway toward the goal.

Funding for the Michigan Economic Development Corps (MEDC), which is the state’s corporate welfare arm, comes primarily from what Indian casinos send to the State. If there is a consensus to keep funding PureMichigan, OK maybe funding for that aspect of MEDC could continue; but why treat the entire $300 million as being irrevocably dedicated to MEDC while road funding lags?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to earmark those funds, or at least the bulk of them, for roads?

Arguably, support for corporate welfare is the most common violation of conservatism committed by politicians who get elected to office claiming to be conservatives. Conservatism is rooted in the idea of trusting the common sense of individuals. An extension of this is trusting in the free market as regards economic matters.

The basic concept behind the modern governmental term “economic development” is to use taxpayer dollars to steer economic activity in supposedly desirable directions. It is really nothing less than public officials basically saying “we’re so clever and so wise that we can not only anticipate future needs, but also bet the public’s money on which companies or projects are most likely to successfully develop the innovations that will satisfy those future needs.”

Another way they could say this — but would never dare — is that they don’t trust individuals and the free market to come up with the right solutions. It is that lack of trust that makes the concept of governmental economic development the opposite of conservatism.

When government officials invest public dollars in an effort to help spur certain chosen companies to success, all they are actually doing is gambling; but of course we’ll never hear them use that word. What’s more, they aren’t even gambling their own money and what they choose to invest in is always limited to whatever is politically correct at that moment.

History shows that most successful inventions and innovations come about when someone takes a different or unconventional approach to a problem. By its very nature, government always sinks taxpayer dollars into projects that are geared toward the latest popularly accepted and politically acceptable approaches. It is a herd mentality that is rarely clever or wise.

Beyond this is the reality that when government invests public dollars the process is sure to become politicized. It’s not the best projects that get the money; it’s the projects promoted by those who wield the most influence over politicians that get the loot.

Ironically, the highway system, along with things like railway lines, canals and rural electrification are often used to defend the potential value of governmental economic development. This can be a compelling argument until one realizes such government-funded projects followed up on proven innovations; they weren’t attempts to bet on which ones would pan out.

A closer look at such projects reveals that they were aimed at removing obstacles, such as distance or inaccessibility. That’s a lot different than throwing taxpayer dollars at unproven technologies or attempting to force market demand where little or none exists.

Michigan’s current road funding woes offer an opportunity for our leaders to show what their priorities really are. Trying to address the road funding issue while leaving corporate welfare spending intact would place the interests and egos of politicians ahead of the state’s transportation needs.