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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — With her proposed 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike stalled, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday that fixing the roads is still the "No. 1 issue" despite the Republican-led Legislature prioritizing an overhaul of Michigan's car insurance law.
"People want our roads fixed. That is the No. 1 issue, and there is crickets at the Capitol right now on that front," she said after speaking at an infrastructure summit in Lansing. "I put out a real plan to solve it, and that's what I want to spend my energy focusing on."
The House and Senate last week approved different bills that would cut the highest auto premiums in the country by letting people opt out of mandatory unlimited medical coverage for crash injuries. Whitmer, who vowed to veto the legislation due to "a lot of shortcomings," said "there might be a path forward, but it's too early to tell."
She made clear, however, that her priority is raising $2.5 billion in tax revenue for roads, as part of a budget plan to also free up money for education by stopping financial "shell games" that have been used to patch potholes.
"Our roads are the worst in the country. They're downright dangerous. They're hurting our ability to maintain our edge in the mobility sector and lure investment in the state of Michigan," said Whitmer, who has been traveling the state to sell her first budget plan.
Her desire to address deteriorating road conditions and GOP legislative leaders' prioritization of car insurance changes has sparked speculation that they could strike a broader deal — raising gasoline taxes and reducing auto premiums.
Whitmer stopped short of linking the issues, though, saying the budget should be done before lawmakers break for the summer so K-12 districts can set their spending for the next school year.
"These guys have got to get off the dime and get moving on actually fixing the damn roads in the state of Michigan," she said.
While Republicans are not ruling out a more modest tax increase to boost road construction, they have not outlined a major alternative in the two months since Whitmer proposed the unpopular 45-cent gas tax hike. A plan up for a vote in the Senate on Wednesday would increase road spending by $132 million — well short of what business groups and others say is needed — by accelerating the shift of income tax revenue under 2015 transportation-funding laws.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Levering Republican, does not seem interested in linking road funding with car insurance.
"I'm not sure why I would negotiate one for the other," he said last week. "I can certainly have two conversations at one time, but I will not trade good policy for bad."
The House GOP is having ongoing conversations about road funding and how to "deliver the right plan, not the most simple plan," Chatfield spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said Tuesday.
Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake, pointed to the Senate's plans to more quickly transfer general funds to roads and then outline a larger proposal in the summer.
"We're also focused on delivering cheaper car insurance options and look forward to working with the governor," she said.
With Whitmer promising to not sign a spending plan unless the road-funding issue is resolved, budget talks appear likely to stretch over the summer months and potentially into the fall. The fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
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