Whitmer Visits TC To Talk Gas Tax, Roads, Education Funding
By Beth Milligan | April 12, 2019
Governor Gretchen Whitmer visited Traverse City Thursday to present her proposed 2020 fiscal year budget, which among other provisions would invest $507 million in education - including a $180 boost to the per-pupil foundation allowance for Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) and other northern Michigan districts. Local leaders praised the budget plan after the Traverse City Central High School event - though some called for Whitmer to push education funding reforms further.
Whitmer appeared at TC Central for an hour Thursday as part of a statewide tour to sell her $60.2 billion budget. Building on her campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads,” Whitmer is proposing a 45-cent gasoline tax to fund a $2.5 billion investment into road repairs, which would in turn free up budgetary funds to be spent in other areas, including education. Just over $2 million of the road investment would go toward Grand Traverse County road projects, including on M-72, Supply Road, and County Road 663, among others.
The fuel tax would be phased in through three 15-cent increases between October 2019 and October 2020. Speaking in Traverse City Thursday, Whitmer acknowledged the increase would require a “tough vote” from legislators. “This is a big vote I’m asking them to take, there’s no question,” she said, adding that “if this was easy, it would have been done by now. It’s very hard to force the legislature to have this conversation, but it’s overdue.”
Whitmer noted that Michigan ranks 46th out of 50 states in infrastructure spending. While transportation standards call for 90 percent of state roads to be in good or fair condition, Whitmer said, only 78 percent of Michigan roads meet that threshold. The governor said that figure would continue to plummet unless road improvements were made immediately, with the $2.5 billion price tag climbing to $3.5 billion in four years if the issue “is not addressed” now. While acknowledging the hike could pose a hardship to some residents at the pump, Whitmer said she was also proposing to double the Earned Income Tax Credit and repeal the retirement tax in an effort to offer relief to low-income families and seniors.
During an audience Q&A – in which audience members could submit written comments on note cards, which were read to Whitmer by TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma – residents questioned why a 2015 fuel tax hadn’t already solved Michigan’s roads problem and whether taxes from newly legalized marijuana could pay for the improvements. Whitmer called the 2015 hike – which raised the fuel tax to 26.3 cents per gallon – a “smoke and mirrors” move by Lansing that “slowed the decline, but it didn’t actually fix the problem. Managing the decline of our state is not good enough.” Whitmer said that “at the height” of projected marijuana tax revenues, only $40 million would be generated that could possibly go toward road repairs – not nearly enough to cover the needed investment, she said.
“One of my staff members did the math, and I said, ‘How much marijuana would we have to smoke to fix the roads?’” Whitmer said, to audience laughter. “And the answer is, if you smoke that much, no one will care about the roads.”
Whitmer’s budget also calls for increasing the base per-pupil foundation allowance in Michigan by $180. That would boost funding for TCAPS – which receives the minimum per-pupil allotment, along with several other northern Michigan districts – from $7,871 to $8,051 per pupil. The governor’s budget also allocates a $120 million increase for special education, $50 million for career and technical training, and $102 million for at-risk students, as well as $120 million for clean drinking water infrastructure upgrades that include school improvements.
In response to an audience question on how Whitmer would stem the flood of teachers leaving the profession, she called the talent drain a “looming crisis” in Michigan and said her funding plan would provide more “wraparound services” to support educators. The governor issued an executive order Thursday creating a new 15-member advisory council consisting of representatives from different realms of public education – a move she told the Traverse City audience would “elevate the voices of our front-line educators.”
After Whitmer’s appearance, Soma told The Ticker he was excited about the governor’s proposed budget, agreeing with her assertion it represented the “biggest investment in Traverse City students in 20 years.” But Soma says he also plans to continue pushing the administration for more equitable funding distribution among school districts. Whitmer’s plan boosts the funding base for all districts – meaning wealthier districts already ahead of school systems like TCAPS will move forward at the same pace TCAPS does, preserving the gap between them.
“From a relative standpoint, it doesn’t do anything to close any gaps, because literally the disadvantage just moves to a different level,” Soma says. Higher levels of funding can help pay for lower class sizes, better classroom support services, and increased wages – all competitive tools in recruiting from the “same group of dwindling teachers,” Soma says. But while a funding boost could help TCAPS invest in those advantages, other districts receiving the same boost will continue to have more resources to invest beyond TCAPS’ means, according to the superintendent.
Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers, who attended Thursday's event and met with the governor briefly beforehand, points to the city’s upcoming multi-million dollar reconstruction of Eighth Street as an example of the costs involved in maintaining aging infrastructure. He says Whitmer's budget reflects the reality that it is necessary “to spend money to make things happen.”
“I think our new governor is really trying to take the issues that we have here in Michigan and bring a budget forward that can help actually do something,” Carruthers says. “We’ve spent a long time giving our issues lip service, and she’s trying to create some action. And that action, unfortunately, is increases in taxes. She’s biting off the big chew and making it happen. It’s not fun, but we’ve got to do something.”