- Associated Press - Sunday, November 8, 2015

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - No-new-tax Republicans banded together to narrowly pass Michigan’s first fuel tax and vehicle registration fee increases in decades, a move Democrats eagerly hope voters will remember in 2016 and after.

Even before the breakthrough road-funding votes were cast Tuesday, Democrats had launched an “accountability” campaign targeting GOP lawmakers in swing districts who are up for re-election a year from now. They are lambasting the “birthday tax” - license plate renewal fees that come due every year before a driver’s birthday and which will rise by 20 percent in 2017, two months after the election.

Republicans counter that inaction on the state’s most pressing issue, crummy and deteriorating roads, was not an option. Gasoline and diesel taxes also will go up in 2017, by 7.3 cents and 11.3 cents respectively, with automatic yearly inflationary increases beginning in 2022.

Freshman Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, who represents a Lansing-area swing district, said the net $400 million increase in taxes and fees is far less than a proposed $1.8 billion hike in taxes and fees included in a ballot measure proposed by the previous Legislature, which voters handily rejected in May.

“To walk away from the table and do nothing and vote no - take an easy vote and say, ‘No, I’m not going to tolerate something that’s not my perfect idea’ - would be to have our infrastructure continue to deteriorate,” said Barrett, who contended that waiting would have meant even higher taxes and fees later on. “I came here to make tough decisions. People are either going to trust me that I worked to get the best deal that I could out of this, or they’re not.”

Second-term Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, who won back her battleground seat in Muskegon County in 2014 after losing it in 2012, also voted for the most contentious parts of the road-spending plan that won House approval in close 54-53 and 55-52 votes. All but one Democrat voted no.

Like Barrett, Hughes said the $20 boost in average registration fees is half of what was proposed in an earlier House plan and that lower- and middle-income homeowners and renters could see a net tax cut once an expanded homestead property tax credit included in the legislation takes effect in 2018.

“I think it’ll be a lot more affordable, once people look at the whole package, for a lot of folks - that they didn’t expect, that they’re not getting right now actually,” Hughes said. “We were sent here for a reason, to get the job done, and that’s what we’re doing.”

While the GOP checked another box, the go-it-alone approach after bipartisan talks broke down provides an opening for House Democrats who have been out of power since 2010.

The transportation budget will wait five years until the full phase-in of $1.2 billion more in annual funding, the bare minimum Gov. Rick Snyder says is needed to keep roads up to par and from falling further into disrepair. In other words, motorists should not expect significantly better roads, partly because legislators already have been shifting other money toward infrastructure - including a record-high $400 million from the $9.9 billion general fund in the current budget.

The bills to be signed by the Republican governor will permanently earmark general funds toward roads, topping out at $600 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year and each year after - unless future legislators change course.

“Apparently the majority party’s lectures and finger-wagging about fiscal responsibility doesn’t apply when their budget cuts will hit long after they’re gone and long after they have to make the tough decisions about where those cuts are going to come from,” House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel said. He accused the GOP of kicking the can down the road and “doing nothing to improve roads for at least six years.”

Republicans bristled at accusations that other budget priorities will be hurt or that they punted, adding that it makes sense not to dump $1.2 billion into the road-building system immediately to avoid a supply-demand problem that could swell road builders’ bids. They also pointed to the plan’s future cuts in the 4.25 percent personal income tax, which will not be triggered until 2023 at the earliest - more than four elections away - and only if general revenues grow above a certain amount.

Tom Shields, a GOP consultant with Marketing Resource Group in Lansing, said incumbent lawmakers achieved a temporary win because the public wanted something done with the roads. But he doubted anyone is really happy with the deal, calling it the best Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter was going to secure in the House.

“It will continue to be a campaign issue into next year. … Voters are not going to see the results of the increased road funding for a couple years,” Shields said. “So incumbents who supported the package have a tax increase vote on their record with no results to show for it.”

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Follow David Eggert at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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