Pay for Roads and College Now, or Pay Later

Pay for Roads and College Now, or Pay Later
March 25, 2014/Bridge Magazine

By Phil Power

Remember the oil filter ad from the 1970s, where the gruff, grease-stained car mechanic scowls at the camera and says, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later?”
That’s exactly what we are facing in Michigan. Only it’s been that way for a decade when it comes to dealing with the stuff – the fancy word is “infrastructure” – that will define much of our future: The condition of our roads and the quality of our young people’s minds.

Roads first. It’s been a long and terrible winter, and the thaw we’re seeing these days sure is welcome. But today’s thaw means tomorrow’s potholes. The harder the winter, the more and deeper the potholes. And the more expensive, especially when you discover that big thud you heard when you were driving home means a trip to the shop for a tire and a maybe a new wheel.

To his credit, Gov. Rick Snyder has been pushing for years for the big money needed to fix our roads. But it’s an election year, so of course the legislature has been doing everything possible to avoid facing facts and coming up with the money everybody knows we need to fix our concrete ribbons.

The first step in this year’s political pander dance was for a couple Republican senators to propose – what else? – a tax cut. But when it turned out that would pay for, maybe, a couple of lattes at the local Starbucks, support cooled. And when we got the thaw and as people gasped at the potholes, the political class began to re-think.

I’m told by Lansing insiders that legislators, regardless of party, are being pounded big time to do something about the roads. “Something” may not mean the $1.2 billion per year that Gov. Snyder has been talking about, but it’s got to be a serious, long-term program to bring our roads into the 21st Century, not just a few slabs of cold patch and a thin skin of new paving.

If it’s ever going to be done politically, it will have to be done pretty quickly, while folks are seeing firsthand just how much it costs everybody to shirk taking care of basic infrastructure.

Investing in our students

Now consider our colleges and universities. They are just as basic as the roads to our future, since they have to do with the talent and skills of our young people.

Disgracefully, over the past decade, state spending on higher ed has been cut by more than half. The result has been rapidly rising college tuition … and mushrooming student debt, which is now an average of $29,000 per graduate, according to the higher education data website CollegeInSight.org.

The nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency reports state support used to cover more than half a college degree’s cost. Today, it’s only around 20 per cent. Michigan is one of the few states in the nation that spends more on warehousing felons in our prison system than on educating our young people.

In his State of the State message in January, Gov. Snyder proposed increasing support for higher education by 6.1 per cent. Many people, led by Business Leaders for Michigan, are saying it’s about time. But, politics has a way of getting in the way, especially in an election year.

So far, much of the debate has been dominated by legislators who seem to think an uneducated workforce will guarantee prosperity for us all.

Democratic lawmakers, who usually favor increased support for higher education, have been largely silent on the subject, probably because they don’t want to make the governor look good.

How come? Democrats think it is good politics to bash Gov. Snyder for short changing the schools. And because spending on both schools and colleges is bundled in an “omnibus” bill, they don’t want to join in a bipartisan vote for passage – even at the risk of hurting our universities, young people, their families and our future.

Higher education increases lifetime earnings. According to the Anderson Economic Group, median wages for Michigan workers with a BA are $20,000 higher than those with only a high school diploma; the gap widens to $40,000 for those with advanced degrees.

And, according to the Lumina Foundation, which is designed to increase the number of Americans with degrees, we’ll need an additional 900,000 workers with an associate’s degree or higher to meet the workforce demands of the next decade.

So here we have two cases – roads and colleges – in which partisan politics is preventing our lawmakers from taking long overdue essential actions for our long-term good.

To be fair, most lawmakers are good people who start out running for office to make things better. But as their re-election dates draw near, their calculus has a way of changing.
Maybe we should arrange to play that old “pay me now or pay me later,” at party caucuses and both houses of the legislature.

For its message is even more relevant than ever: Paying now for long-term essentials makes far more sense and is far better – and far cheaper – than paying later.



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