New House Speaker Lee Chatfield said Michigan will always struggle to fund roadwork until it solves the root problem — drivers pay some of the country’s highest taxes at the pump, but not all of the revenue goes to the transportation budget.
That factor, more than any other, is hampering Michigan’s ability to adequately upgrade roads, he said. Chatfield is leading majority House Republicans who will be critical to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pending push to inject more spending into roads and bridges.
“The fact is, we’ve done bonding in the past and we’re still paying for it. We’ve raised taxes in the past, and our roads are still crumbling,” he told the Associated Press in a recent interview. “We have got to change how we pay for the roads at the pump, and we need to ensure that every single penny paid at the pump is a penny that goes to the roads.”
Chatfield’s focus on taxes assessed at the pump is not new. A 2015 ballot initiative proposed by lawmakers — and soundly rejected by voters — would have doubled per-gallon fuel taxes but eliminated the sales tax on gasoline and diesel to ensure that all taxes at the pump went to transportation.
It was a complicated, multi-faceted proposal that also would have increased the sales tax while boosting spending on education and local governments. GOP legislators and former Gov. Rick Snyder later raised fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to increase road funding, but the plan has been faulted as inadequate.
Chatfield wants to revisit taxes at the pump. Michigan is among a small number of states to apply the sales tax to motor fuel — a factor in why its gas taxes were sixth-highest in the U.S. as of July, according to the Tax Foundation. The sales tax revenue mostly goes to schools and local governments under the state constitution.
Asked about the potential impact on schools, Chatfield said boosting roads should not come at their expense.
“Let me be very clear: We will not turn back the clock on education funding in this state,” he said.
Removing the sales tax on fuel would require a statewide vote. Another option could be to keep it intact and shift an equivalent from elsewhere in the budget to roads — an approach that already is squeezing the general fund under 2015 road-funding laws. Chatfield said fixing the roads is a priority not just for Whitmer, who campaigned on it, but also lawmakers and residents.
“They made that clear in November,” he said.
Chatfield, 30, is believed to be the youngest House speaker in more than a century, though having speakers who are in their 30s is commonplace in the term limits era.
He graduated from Northland International University, a Baptist college in Wisconsin, and obtained a master’s degree from Liberty University in Virginia. Before winning election to the House in 2014, he was a teacher, coach and athletic director at a Christian school in northern Michigan that was run by his minister father.
Factors in the conservative Chatfield’s victory were his criticism of his Republican primary opponent for introducing a bill to expand the state’s civil rights law to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people and helping to expand Medicaid.
“It was my obligation to either get involved or stop complaining,” said Chatfield, of Levering, which is about 10 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge. “I think the American spirit is one which encourages involvement, and then having children really impressed upon me the responsibility I had to fight for the values I believed in.”
Last year, Chatfield was the lead sponsor of a law that wiped clear outstanding state driver “responsibility” fees for hundreds of thousands of motorists. He unsuccessfully pushed for a state income tax cut in 2017.
He will lead the chamber the next two years before reaching his maximum time in the House. He has emphasized bipartisan cooperation with Democrats while quickly putting his stamp on how legislative business is to be conducted. Many bills will now go before two House committees instead of one before moving to the floor.
“Unfortunately, in the era of term limits we don’t have the opportunity to serve 10 to 20 years and become experts in different fields,” Chatfield said. “I believe that more collaboration and more debate will be healthy for this chamber.”
Top goals, he said, include reducing the high cost of car insurance and changing the criminal justice system to help inmates succeed upon their release and to prevent overcriminalization. He also wants to expand government transparency by opening the Legislature and governor’s office to public-records requests.
“Though we’ll have disagreements, what will define us is our ability to come together and provide solutions,” he said.