Michigan government 101: Want more taxes? Hold elections when few vote

The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of a handful of Michigan government agencies seeking a tax on the March presidential primary ballot (Shutterstock photo)


Next March, fully two years before its current property tax expires, the Detroit Institute of Arts wants to ask voters in southeast Michigan for more money.

If the DIA wants the tax to pass, choosing the March 2020 primary was wise.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Michigan pollster Bernie Porn and president of EPIC-MRA in Lansing.

That’s because it’s the presidential primary, and the DIA’s 10-year, 0.2 mill property tax will likely be decided in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties by a heavily Democratic electorate since President Donald Trump faces token opposition in the Republican primary. And Democrats, polls and election results show, are more tax-friendly, Porn said.

Besides the DIA, the City of Detroit wants to ask voters in March for a $250 million bond for blight removal and the Macomb Intermediate School District intends to ask for a county-wide 1.9 mill tax increase

Foes say the scheduling of those elections are anti-democratic and designed to suppress votes.

“It’s avoiding voters and picking the voters they want,” said Leon Drolet, a Macomb County commissioner and founder of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance.

The March election is a newer twist on an old, controversial method of increasing the prospects for tax proposals by scheduling them during sparsely attended elections. The practice is so divisive that Michigan legislators tried, unsuccessfully, in 2017 to require all tax requests be placed only on November general election ballots.

“If something is as important as raising people’s property taxes, we should put it on (at) the election of high turnout rather than low turnout,” said state Rep. James Lower, R, Greenville, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Michigan elections officials don’t track the scheduling of local bond elections, but schools and municipalities often schedule tax requests throughout the year. The results can vary as widely as turnout. In May 2018, for instance, a millage failed by three votes for Van Dyke Public Schools in southern Macomb County. Last November, during the gubernatorial election, a similar proposal for the district passed overwhelmingly when turnout dramatically increased.

The DIA defended its scheduling of elections, saying it would cost too much to send campaign literature to likely voters during heavy-turnout primary and general elections next year and 2022.  Roughly three times more voters are expected in the general election than the presidential primary, said David Flynn,  the DIA’s senior vice president for public and community affairs, .

The other alternative, 2021, would have cost the museum $500,000 to host a special election since there are no statewide issues on the ballot.

Flynn argued that nothing is stopping voters from casting ballots.

“Everybody has a right to vote in every election,” he said. 

Turnout in March likely will be a fraction of general elections. Last November’s gubernatorial election saw 4.3 million voters. Michigan’s heavily contested presidential primaries in 2016 saw a total of 2.5 million votes –  1.2 million for Dems and 1.3 million for Republicans, who may have less incentive to vote with Trump a seeming lock for renomination.

The DIA tax would raise about $26 million a year  and allow free general admission to residents of participating counties. 

Wayne County has already put it on the ballot and Oakland County art commission officials will consider it Nov. 21; the DIA is still talking with Macomb officials. The decision to put it on the March ballot must be made by Dec. 17, Flynn said.

For decades, taxing bodies like school districts and municipalities have chosen lower-turnout primaries for tax increases. And it isn’t a Michigan phenomenon – voters in Toledo, Ohio, will likely consider an increase in the city income tax in March.

Porn said polling bears out the reasons why: If you can get a Democrat-leaning pool of voters, you’re getting a group more sympathetic to tax increases. And conversely, big turnout typically attracts more “no” votes, he said.

Lower, the state representative, is a former village manager and a former Ionia County commissioner who once worked for a consulting firm that did polling for groups that wanted to pass millages.

He said he knows that school boards and cities put millage requests on the ballot when they feel they have the best shot of passage, even if only a tiny fraction of the overall community votes.

“Of course they’re doing that,” Lower said.

The Legislature consolidated elections in 2015, eliminating February elections in a bill signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. Supporters said it would reduce costs; opponents, including school officials, argued it would limit the ability to plan budgets by reducing opportunities to ask voters for money. Others said it would limit “democracy” by cutting one of four elections each year.

Macomb County has its own county-wide request coming up, to replace its aging jail. The board of commissioners considered an election in March –  they too were aware that it could make it easier, Drolet said. But the board opted for the August primary.

Even Democrats supported the switch even though March would have made it more likely to pass, said Democrat Rob Mijac, a commissioner from Sterling Heights. 

“Everybody’s paying their taxes,” said Mijac. “Why not have more people vote on it?”

“In a democracy, why would you not want that?”

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 7:18am

"The DIA defended its scheduling of elections, saying it would cost too much to send campaign literature to likely voters during heavy-turnout primary and general elections next year and 2022. "

Yeah, sure...a tax that doesn't expire for two years, now "needs" to placed on a ballot that most likely wouldn't have happened in the first place were it not for the DIA Board looking for a little more mad money to spread around.

OABTW, Mr. Wilkinson, that offer of unlimited free admission the DIA promised voters didn't extent to actual unlimited free admission.


Yet another lie from the DIA.

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 8:54am

The DIA did not promise free everything; they said admission to the museum would be free for residents of those counties.

"The Detroit Institute of Arts millage election passed Tuesday night in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and it gives free general admission to those residents for the next 10 years." Source: https://www.mlive.com/entertainment/detroit/2012/08/wayne_oakland_macomb...

Special exhibits have often had separate fees to cover the costs of those exhibits.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 5:33pm

Actually, they did.

Let me refer you to the Service Agreement that the DIA signed just prior to the vote (it's right under Section 2.4(a)):

"The DIA will provide unlimited, free admission for all residents of Macomb County, including self-guided student field trips."


Nowhere does it say anything regarding "free general admission".

John Chastain
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 9:47am

Right Kevin, link to a 7 year old court case dismissed a year later to make your point. Who’s really being dishonest here! A 1/2 truth is no better than a lie but I imagine that even conservatives know that eh.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 6:00pm

Read my post above regarding the actual language and where it came from.

I never said that their case was successful.

I included that case to illustrate the point that someone tried to get the DIA to honor their agreement to the Macomb County Taxpayers.

If you had actually read the language in the link, the fact that the Judge Foster dismissed the case without explanation says an awful lot right there.

Robert Honeyman
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 9:13pm

Know it? Hell, they bank on it.

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 9:21am

For something that affects everyone like a tax, the requirement should be that 50%+1 of the registered voters have to approve it. These money grubbing politicians will never give up their quest for additional money. The DIA is especially wrong since they stated in the original request that the tax would be a one time thing. Now that they have learned to love the extra money, I’m surprised they didn’t also ask for an increase in the millage rate, given inflation and all that. And for the record, I’ve visited the DIA once since the tax passed. When I saw the painting that was a huge square of orange, and heard that they paid about $8 million for it, I said enough. I could have roller brushed the whole thing in less than 15 minutes.

Ben W. Washburn
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 6:52pm

So, Arjay, you think that the non-compensated Board of Director's of the DIA are just a bunch of money-grabbing politicians??? I guess that it is your right to question the judgement of DIA art experts as to what art in which they invest. But rather than slamming the whole institution, can you be more specific about this specific purchase to which you have alluded? Do you really have any verifiable facts to support your contention? If you do, I and probably the majority of the Board would like to hear from you !

Kevin Grand
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 1:37pm

One on the first things the DIA board did was to hand out double-digit bonuses when the money started rolling in.

I'd say that money grubbing sums things up rather accurately.

Robert Honeyman
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 9:15pm

Art criticism at its best! [eye roll]

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 7:45am

Maybe that's the point of letting those who enjoy whatever concept of art they like support and pay for the museums to display it rather than forcing it down the throat of a bunch of disinterested taxpayers? Seems like the flipside of typical Bridge commenter always being in favor of raising taxes on someone else, now making everyone pay for the stuff I believe they should like!

Gary Lea
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 9:27am

Mandate voting.

Mike In TC
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 10:40am

Ah yes, mandate voting. We really need to get the low-interest, low-knowledge voters into the voting booths. A mandate would be consistent with the new SOS pushing for voting day registrations and no-reason absentees.

Fri, 11/22/2019 - 10:43am

I love it when Conservatives go mask off and openly tell us don't actually believe in democracy.

Bill Bresler
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 11:26am

“Picking the voters they want”- Leon Drolet. Kind of like gerrymandering, right, Leon?

Bob Beans
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 1:35pm

What a pile of conservative junk. Bridge is nothing more than right wing propaganda trying to disguise itself as some kind of news. Hopefully most people recognize the nonsense printed in Bridge for the right wing agenda garbage that it is....

Ben W. Washburn
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 6:41pm

I would characterize myself as an independent left-of-center voter. I also send $50 a month to help subsidize Bridge, because I find that they zone-in on issues of interest and concern for that 40% of independent middle Michiganders who are amenable to hearing both sides of an issue. So, NO. I don't see Bridge as a primary outlet for conservative junk news. Yes, there is a band of ultra conservative folk who are almost always the first to chime-in with commentary on every news item. And, yes, you have to wonder, after reading Jane Mayer's book: Dark Money, who is paying them to do this. Duh.

Ben W. Washburn
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 7:32pm

Let me try to provide some additional insider perspective on this article. I served 4 elected terms on the Detroit Public Schools Board, and was legal counsel and policy adviser for 25 years to the Wayne County Commission. I have been an insider party on at least 25 of these kinds of ballot proposals.
Firstly, regarding school system proposals: As school board members, who did we really represent? Was it the electorate at large? Or more immediately, was it the current student body and their parents? It was a given that there was always about a 5% smattering of folks among the electorate who were zealously opposed to any tax proposal. And it was always the case that only about 5% of the registered voters were parents of children currently in the schools. In most cases, the real issue was to just renew a millage. Few other voters had enough skin in the game to even bother to come out and vote. And usually, they didn't!!!.
So, who would you think that we should support? We were sworn to conserve and improve the school system.... Does that make us vile, grasping politicians?
Secondly, should the DIA Board have waited until their existing millage was due to expire?
Clearly, any competent legal and political advice would have been to not wait. If your proposal gets shot down at the ballot box, you will still have other chances to get the message right and to still get it passed. It would be the essence of stupidity to wait until the very last opportunity to place the issue on the ballot. You would have violated your most basic charge as an institutional board member to have done otherwise.
Does this rationale offend anyone, other that that thin 5% who listen to no one?

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 8:09am

Ben that is an interesting and troubling angle I had not heard expressed, that as a school board member, or museum board, your duty is representing its interests in opposition to the tax payer, who at the point of a gun (ultimately) are forced to hand over to you their money. So much for taxation with representation. And illustrates one more of the many inherent problems the non-Left has with our current public education model.

middle of the mit
Sun, 11/24/2019 - 12:03am

It's interesting that you think the school board is in opposition to the taxpayer, isn't it?

Would you think that your insurance agent is against you, even though their financial obligation is to make sure they make money off of YOUR PREMIUMS? That means you pay in more than you take out.

Schools can't do that. And the BONUS? They are teaching YOUR KIDS!