Why doesn’t Michigan Republicans’ case for roads add up for schools?

Gov. Rick Snyder and many of his Republican allies in the Legislature think it’s plain-as-your-nose common sense to invest in Michigan roads. It’s not wise to save money by skipping oil changes only to risk a major expense when your engine freezes up, they say. Similarly, they ask, why not invest $12 billion over the next decade in order to avoid a $25 billion road bill down the road?

But if that reasoning is so obvious to them, one must wonder why they can’t see the same value equation when it comes to public education.

Horrible roads are certainly a negative in Michigan. If the governor’s information is correct, the situation will only get worse without additional funding. The current level of funding is insufficient, according to administrative spokespeople.

But these same people are silent when it comes to making the same argument for public education, an area where funding has been cut since Snyder came into office.

While the state’s infrastructure is legitimately an area of concern, it’s possible to make a stronger argument on the importance of adequately funding public education. It’s not only an investment in the next generation, it’s also a force for business attraction. Business recruiters for the state tell stories of prospects who won’t consider Michigan until they are assured that there will be sufficient qualified employees to hire.

Money — or more money, to be precise — doesn’t guarantee improvements in either education or roads. Even if more money is provided, it must be used wisely to be effective. State leaders seem to accept that premise when it comes to education, but are less dogmatic about it when it comes to roads.

The plan now being pushed by the Republican leadership would force an increase in user taxes — gasoline taxes and vehicle registration — to provide additional road funds. Once accomplished, the Republicans want to seek a May statewide ballot issue to see if voters prefer the user tax hiked or would rather see a higher sales tax to pay for roads. There is no option for “none of the above.” If voters don’t support a higher sales tax, than raising the user tax will be the default position.

Either way, Michigan citizens will be subject to a tax hike in order to pay for road improvements. If the user tax is the option, Snyder has estimated that the cost will be about $120 a year per vehicle. In a place like

Livingston County, where many homes have two or more cars, that estimate grows to $240 to $360 a residence.

Some political observers have questioned whether this gambit has a chance. Many Republicans are dead-set against any tax hike, and many Democrats are still angry after the governor steamrolled over them during last year’s lame-duck session.

But there is another question that is not getting enough attention. Why assume that a future tax hike has to be dedicated for roads? If voters are going to have a say, shouldn’t they be given other options?

For instance, instead of asking voters which type of tax increase they favor for roads, why not ask them if an extra $1.2 billion in tax revenue should be earmarked annually for education instead of roads?

If education wins, that would be a clear mandate to spend new money on public schools rather than public roads. Then the Legislature would have to find road-improvement money out of existing funding.

That’s a question worth asking. But for some reason, Snyder and his Republican allies don’t seem to want to hear the answer.