Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist and self-described fiscal conservative, remembers finding himself in what he calls the “rare position” of arguing for a tax hike a few years ago when he urged his county council to adopt a local wheel tax to pay for road repairs.
“I was driving to work every day over some of the worst roads I’ve ever traveled,” Hicks said. “They were as bad as any I’ve driven, including the roads I’d driven during the extensive years I spent in Asia and Africa.”
Hicks thinks the $100 million drop in highway funding is misleadingly low. While it represents the drop in state highway fund dollars from the state to the locals, it doesn’t include the walloping hit from the property tax caps ushered in the by General Assembly in 2008.
Those caps, approved by 70 percent of voters in a 2010 referendum, imposed austerity on local governments, which rely on property taxes as a main source of funding for public services.
Hicks and Greller view the long-term value of the caps differently (Hicks is more optimistic they’ll eventually force local government consolidations and efficiencies) but both agree on this: Bad roads don’t just lead to damaged cars and irritated motorists. They damage a community's prospect for growth and economic development.
It’s not hard to find irony in the political decisions from the past. Two years ago, it was Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, a champion of tax and budget cuts, who scornfully derided: “Michigan and Illinois are grinding road back into gravel. They can’t even fix what they have.”
Here we are, now admitting to the same and having to face a clichéd but stark political truth: You get what you pay for.