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.