by State Rep. Paul Opsommer (MI-93)

There has been much media attention that the federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money and going broke. Last year, an $8 billion infusion of money was required to keep funding whole, and this year Congress will have to come up with an additional $5 billion to $7 billion by August. It is projected that an additional $8 billion to $10 billion will be needed in 2010.

How hard should Michigan be crying over this projected shortfall? Michigan has chronically been classified as a “donor state” when it comes to how these federal transportation dollars are allocated. In layman’s terms, what this means is that when Michigan citizens pay federal gas taxes at the pump that that they only see roughly 94 cents of it flow back to their state. The latest rankings put Michigan 46th out of the 50 states in this regard.

On top of that, federal road dollars have become one of the top tools that Washington uses to fiscally coerce states into passing laws. If you wonder why Michigan has seat belt use as a primary enforcement offense, or has a legal drinking age of 21, it is partly because the federal government will withhold federal road dollars if we don’t comply.

Whether you agree or disagree with these policies has nothing to do with whether or not it should be acceptable for the federal government to use our money in this manner, where they play states off of each other who are all too happy to take another state’s money if one doesn’t comply. This has been threatened with a wide variety of laws regarding everything from vehicle weight limitations to outdoor advertising to junk yard control, clean air compliance, REAL ID, and more. The carrot has become a stick.

This has also helped to perpetuate a mindset where we are always chasing federal dollars, using our matching money on such things as “street beautification” at times when many of our highways and bridges are crumbling.

I also anticipate federal dollars will be attached soon to include such proposals as putting mandatory GPS units into our cars for a so called “per mile” tracking tax. Such fiscal coercion has led George Will to recently call Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the “Secretary for Behavior Modification.”

While I join other Michigan lawmakers in their call to get the federal government to give Michigan its fair share of money (it is ironic that our “donor status” means that the federal government will give us less money by about the same amount we would need to turn around and give back to them in order to qualify for all federal matching dollars), questions regarding the long run viability of the program also offer us an opportunity to ask another fundamental question: Should the program even still continue?

If Washington stopped levying a federal gas tax, a state could then raise its own gas tax by an equal amount, making it a revenue neutral proposition for its taxpayers while guaranteeing that all the money would stay at home. Federal strings would be cut, allowing states to spend money on their most pressing priorities without fear of losing federal dollars or being forced to pass tangential laws that may or may not be in the best interests of its citizens.

If it ain’t broke you shouldn’t fix it. But in this case – if the federal Highway Trust Fund is going broke, the best thing may be to let it stay that way and put states back in control.

State Rep. Paul Opsommer [send him email] was elected to a second term in the Michigan House of Representatives in November 2008.  He represents the residents of Clinton and Gratiot counties.

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