Yes, fixing the roads is an urgent need, but no, Proposal 1 isn’t the way to do it

In a few days, Michigan citizens will vote on Proposal 1. They’ve heard millions of dollars in advertising telling them to vote yes. Their governor, whom they just re-elected, is telling them to vote yes, and numerous civic, government, and business groups are reinforcing the yes-vote message.

I agree with many of the arguments made by these civic leaders and share their desire to fix our roads. However, Michigan voters have better reasons to vote no. Here are four key reasons I believe Michigan voters will reject Proposal 1 on May 5:

Citizens cherish their constitution.

The number one argument for Proposal 1 is that it represents the best compromise that could be achieved among elected officials in the last few days of the lame duck session of 2014.

Proponents point out that the proposal isn’t perfect, but moves us in the right direction on road funding; they blame recalcitrance among one segment of the legislature or another for the failure to adopt a better plan.

I can’t think of a more delicate way to say this, so I’ll say it bluntly: That just isn’t a good enough reason to change the Michigan Constitution. Michigan voters have a history of protecting their supreme law from changes, until they are thoroughly convinced a change is needed. They rejected multiple school finance proposals before adopting Proposal A in 1994.

They’ve repeatedly rejected efforts to allow a graduated income tax. They rejected different tax limitation proposals before adopting the Headlee amendment in 1978. Indeed, the last time they agreed to a change in the constitution designed to raise tax revenue without any offsetting tax reductions was in 1960, when the sales tax was raised to 4 percent.

That’s three constitutional tax changes in the last 55 years. Does the current crisis in road funding rise to the level of a problem that requires a once-a-century constitutional change? I don’t think so. Based on the public sentiment, it appears the citizens don’t either.

There is a plan B – and C, and D, and E – to fix roads.

Proposal 1 proponents say there is no plan B if the proposal fails. For starters, that presumes that this is Plan A, which is clearly not true. Furthermore, there are many alternatives to a Proposal 1. To be sure, Proposal 1 is tempting to many voters because it’s on the table today.

However, other options exist, and most of them do not require a constitutional amendment. Voters have every right to demand their elected officials go back and try again.

Proposal 1 has some problems.

Problems in Proposal 1 include: it raises money for purposes other than roads; it would eliminate the federal tax deductibility of registration taxes; it includes a potential double whammy for snowmobilers, boaters and off-road vehicle riders, who would face the higher gas tax but not benefit from the sales tax exemption; it hurts our competitive position compared to other states, at least in some industries; it establishes unfair and politically unsustainable registration taxes for older cars. On top of that, there are technical problems that would have to be fixed. You can read reports from Anderson Economic Group, Citizens Research Council, Mackinac Center, and other organizations that document these issues, and some of them could be fixed with subsequent legislation, but that’s not the main point.

That’s not a short list. Voters deserve better.

Universities would be hurt by Proposal 1.

Proposal 1 contains a little-discussed but dramatic change to the constitution. Since 1850, the Michigan Constitution has provided for a school fund authorized to aid colleges and universities. Among these, our current 1963 Constitution explicitly authorizes the School Aid Fund to aid colleges and universities in addition to K-12 schools. Proposal 1 would eliminate that, and do so without any public debate over the reasons. (Fortunately, the change is included in the ballot description you will see at the polling place. Look for it.)

Again, constitutions matter to people. If it was good in 1850, and good in 1908, and good in 1963 – the dates of the last three Michigan constitutions – and it was still good in 1994 when we adopted Proposal A, then we probably shouldn’t change it without a fulsome public debate.

That’s four big reasons to vote no. For me, they trump the reasons to vote yes. Now, I acknowledge many of the arguments of proponents, and indeed I’ve signed my name to reports that document some of them. Yes, increasing road funding would improve safety; yes, auto repair costs would go down; yes, the economy would be better if we fixed the roads. On top of that, the Earned Income Tax Credit is largely a benefit to the state’s workforce.

That’s not a short list either. However, these are not good enough reasons to permanently change our constitution, permanently raise the sales tax, permanently eliminate our universities from the school aid fund, create an unsustainable registration tax, face a set of technical problems, and pass a “road funding” proposal that spends a third of the money raised on local governments, schools and tax credits.

Our fellow citizens deserve better, and we can and should give it to them. As much as I’d like to vote to fix the roads, I can’t support Proposal 1.

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Sun, 05/03/2015 - 8:15am
Spot on Patrick, Spot On!
Big D in Cvx
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 8:28am
In addition to the fact that this unaffordable proposed mish-mash of special interest bribes is the handicraft of an impotent legislature in the waning hours of their term (i.e. lame duck), it doesn't do a meaningful job of funding roads any time soon. Since years one and two use most of the road money to repay debt, the lawmakers have plenty of time to choose their best plan B. We should give them that opportunity. Just because they've wasted 6 years supposedly trying already doesn't mean we should just give them an "A" and graduate them. (there's a metaphor for you). (Please don't reply, "But how do you really feel?") Good commentary. and it's Bridge!
Richard McLellan
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 11:14am
Pat: Clear statement of some of the collateral, but important, issues involved in Prop 1.
Bruce Ogilvie
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 1:39pm
Absolutely correct, Mr. Anderson! No doubt any change in the Michigan Constitution, as it affects any tax rate, requires intense and significant debate by a legislature and people that meets for an extended period of hearings and review. The actions of the 'lame duck' legislature in 2014 is laughable if it weren't so disturbing and iconic as the least deliberative legislature I have ever experienced. "Thoughtless and ill-conceived" pandering to special interests are words that come to mind as I consider the unicameral nature of our executive, legislative and judicial system in this state ... the lack of balanced and open debate and the inability to consider the long term aspects of their actions places these last six years in Lansing in perspective. This view is not in keeping with the Constitutional basis for their existence. Defeat Proposal 1 and send the so-called government in Lansing home and let the people elect real, intelligent and farsighted individuals to all the offices in state government.
Charles Kero
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 8:38pm
amen. Until Michigan reduces the weight limit on trucks, all money spent on roads is useless.
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 4:32pm
"Among these, our current 1963 Constitution explicitly authorizes the School Aid Fund to aid colleges and universities in addition to K-12 schools. Proposal 1 would eliminate that, and do so without any public debate over the reasons." Does anyone who was behind this and why?
William C. Plumpe
Mon, 05/04/2015 - 1:26am
It is ironic in the extreme that Mr. Anderson talks about the dangers of changing the State Constitution when he was one of the most vocal proponents of the Headlee Amendment limiting property taxes and changing Michigan's Constitution forever. And maybe it wasn't such a good idea either. But I guess it's OK to change the Constitution if it supports his position. Proposal 1 is not the best way but democracy by nature is not perfect and never will be. Best to get something done and do tweaking later if necessary. The roads do need to be fixed, the debt needs to be reduced and jobs will be created. And isn't this problem created by term limits because some legislators aren't there anymore and we have to start all over again? You better be careful what you legislate because you might get it. This ballot proposal is a direct result of term limits. If you want to limit government well then you're going to have to shoulder more of the responsibility and this ballot proposal is an example. You can't have your cake and eat it oo.
Mon, 05/04/2015 - 9:04am
The problem with trying to tweak something later is the special interests that got what they wanted in the first place will do everything they can to keep and protect the changes. Extreme political positions have gotten us into having this mess of a proposal in the first place, I don't trust the legislature to make intelligent changes in the future.
Nick Ciaramitaro
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 4:02pm
Hmmmmmmmmm. The writer suggests that "The problem with trying to tweak something later is the special interests that got what they wanted in the first place will do everything they can to keep and protect the changes." ignoring the fact that education and local government are NOT special interests. Then the writer proclaims "I don’t trust the legislature to make intelligent changes in the future." So, you insist that the Legislature make all the decisions without any input from the public? That's what happens if Prop 1 fails.
John S.
Mon, 05/04/2015 - 1:57pm
Proposal 1 looking at the polls has far less than a 1 out of 100 chance of passing. The vote is tomorrow, but the funeral preparations can begin in earnest, and discussion can change to what comes next. Will it be fuel taxes going up? That seems very likely. The legislature will no doubt phase them in so that they are somewhat less noticeable at the pump.
Mon, 05/04/2015 - 2:09pm
Snyder is taking a low key approach with the proposal with a bus tour around the state instead of TV commercials, he has to know the proposal will fail but is taking this approach so his name won't be associated too strongly with it if he did TV commercials. He is basically just going through the motions.
John S.
Mon, 05/04/2015 - 6:12pm
Your observation is certainly on target. He was never that enthusiastic about the proposal to begin with. Voters when they see a complicated and thus confusing proposal tend to go with the status quo and vote "no." That's what's going to happen tomorrow.
Jo Bo
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 10:37am
a NO vote is well-warranted for this piece of crap proposal ... however, looking at past voter passages, I am worried that the legislature will do another end run around us anyway! Voters said NO to the bridge with Canada .... and we got it .... Voters said NO (THREE TIMES!!)
Jo Bo
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 10:42am
sorry, hit send too soon Voters said NO to the wolf hunt (THREE TIMES!!) .... and we got it .... Voters said NO to Emergency Managers .... and we got it .... Voters said NO to Right to Work ... and we got it .... Voters said to raise the minimum wage and the legislature went around the voters and cut the amount of the raise .... When Prop 1 goes down, don't you think the Legislature will do SOMETHING to get what they want?? AND then throw a bit of appropriation money in so that the voters cannot call it back in referendum!! I don't trust our government to do as the VOTERS say ... they do more of what their special interests say!! I AM SO SICK OF OUR VOTES NOT COUNTING!! But I go vote anyway!
William C. Plumpe
Wed, 05/06/2015 - 6:49am
Odd that Mr. Anderson makes a big deal out of "cherishing the Constitution" when he was one of the biggest proponents of the last major change to the Michigan Constitution in 1993 The Headlee Amendment limiting tax increases. In fact we wouldn't have had to vote if not for the Headlee Amendment. And with the downturn in the real estate market and the drop in property values the Headlee Amendment is making it very difficult for local municipalities and school districts to adjust. Further if term limits hadn't gutted the Legislature and put in a big bunch of rookies we wouldn't have had to vote and could hold legislators accountable. Now those responsible for forcing a vote of the people are out of office so we have to start all over again. And the roads still aren't fixed. It's a noble thought to limit government but doesn't always work out particularly if you really want to get something done. You should be careful what you ask and vote for because you might get it.