Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, was on a shuttle at Detroit Metro Airport last month when she found herself in the middle of a mini-focus group on Proposal 1.
As she tells it, the shuttle hit a pothole, hard, and the driver apologized to the riders, saying that with a recent thaw, new hazards were appearing, and he told them to be careful as they drove home.
“So I take the opportunity to say (to the other riders), ‘And this is why you need to vote yes on May 5,’” Jacobs said. No one agreed with her.
“One guy said, ‘I would never do this’ because the legislature should have done their jobs and not put it to the voters. Another woman said something about heavy trucks.” And so on, ticking off the major voter complaints about the complex road-funding package facing voters on May 5. Jacobs, who supports Proposal 1, offered responses to each one: You can’t punish the legislature for this, only yourself and other drivers by rejecting the proposal; heavy trucks will in fact pay higher registration fees; the sales tax is fixed in the state Constitution, etc.
Whether it did any good is anyone’s guess. Jacobs is voting yes for many reasons, but mainly because a constituency the Michigan League represents, lower-income families, would benefit from elements of the proposal.
Some bipartisan no’s
Brian Brown of Detroit will be voting no. He’s suspicious of the switch from a 19-cent-per-gallon gas tax to one based on a percentage of the wholesale price of fuel; it’s difficult to know how much more he’ll be paying. He doesn’t like the idea of raising a regressive tax like sales/use at a time when so many in the state have a hard time getting by. And ultimately, he doesn’t trust the party in Lansing that came up with this plan.
“If Republicans are for it, there's something wrong with it,” he said. “We just haven't found it yet.”
Paul Mitchell is hardly a flaming liberal; he’s chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition of Michigan. Currently, he’s running the anti-Proposal 1 Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals. But he doesn’t like the proposal, either.
“I’m presenting to groups all over the state,” Mitchell said. “The response we’re getting is overwhelmingly opposed.”
Mitchell doesn’t disagree that the state’s roads are in terrible condition and need to be repaired. But the legislative solution is overcomplicated, over-generous and overly burdensome to taxpayers, he said. Too many other constituencies – schools, municipalities, the state’s general fund – will see healthy gains from what is supposed to be a fix for the pavement, he said.
Mitchell predicts a victory for his side, and when the legislature meets afterward – and despite claims that there’s “no Plan B,” he thinks there is, or will be – speculated that lawmakers will present a different solution, one that either finds the money elsewhere or raises taxes in such a way that no extras are provided for. And if they don’t, a citizens’ initiative would be his coalition’s next step – an unusual move in which the public writes a law and distributes it for signature approval, after which it is presented to the legislature for an up-or-down vote.
Mitchell said he keeps hearing the phrase “hold your nose and vote yes.” He said he believes the roads can be fixed without nose-holding.
“First, (the legislature) needs to efficiently use the money they have,” Mitchell said. “And the second is to follow voters’ priorities.”
Those who say yes
Who will do well under Proposal 1, besides Michigan’s roads?
For constituencies like that of the Michigan League for Public Policy, the state Earned Income Tax Credit will be raised from 6 to 20 percent of the allowed federal amount, restoring it to the level it was before Gov. Rick Snyder’s first budget cut it to the smaller amount. The MLPP says that will mitigate the financial pain those families would feel from the higher gasoline and sales taxes the proposal would put in place.
Using a variety of low-income household scenarios and estimates of how much gasoline they might buy in a year, the League pegs the cost savings to struggling families as anywhere from $177 to $608 per year. Jacobs said such mitigation is necessary because sales and gas taxes are considered regressive, i.e., they leave poorer families paying a larger share of their income.
The most recent list of groups in the Safe Roads Yes coalition was 79 names long, and includes business and nonprofit groups, advocacy organizations, chambers of commerce, law enforcement, unions, environmental groups and others. The interests of some, like the Michigan Concrete Association and Michigan Education Association, are obvious – both road builders and schools also benefit under Proposal 1.
Others have more oblique motivations. The Michigan Food and Beverage Association, for example, supports the measure in part because it includes members that transport goods via truck.
“We collectively represent small business and more,” said Bonnie Bochniak, vice president of government relations for the MFBA. “Everyone drives to work, and the compelling thing was accidents and near-fatalities. The more we learned, the more we decided to join.”
Public transportation in Michigan will see a funding boost, because, under the state constitution, more money for roads means more money for mass transit. It is sorely needed, said Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association.
“Demand is growing, but the systems are deteriorating,” Harder said.
The state’s transit fleets are aging, he added, and nearly one-third of vehicles in the urban systems are at or beyond their recommended life span. Older buses cost more to maintain, so it’s driving overall costs up. And public transportation is rising in popularity, particularly with younger people, he said.
Environmental groups are on board, mainly because of provisions for less-polluting public transit, and also because the Department of Natural Resources’ Recreation Improvement Account would receive about $20 million more if approved. That earmark is in place because owners of snowmobiles and off-road vehicles buy gasoline, too and, as with roads, a portion of the taxes collected are used to maintain the trails they travel on.
Some large urban chambers of commerce in the state are supportive, including Grand Rapids’, Lansing’s and Detroit’s. Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs for the Grand Rapids chamber, said that while “there are some things people don’t like about it, there’s enough to like that a yes vote makes sense.” Johnston said the chamber particularly likes the idea of paying off road debt incurred years ago, on roads that may even now be deteriorated: “We’re financing potholes.”
Delaying a long-term fix over concerns about raising taxes makes little sense, Johnston contends, adding, “The longer we wait, it’s effectively a tax increase on Michigan residents, because the longer we wait, the more it will cost.”
Those who say no, or ‘not now’
The various groups opposing Proposal 1 have fewer recognizable names. Tea party organizations make up most of the roster, with some higher-profile politicians like Attorney General Bill Schuette, said Randall Thompson, executive director of the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals. But, he said, he believes their support is truly grassroots, based on thousands signing up for email and on Facebook.
Perhaps the most conspicuous non-supporter is the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which is remaining neutral, choosing to neither endorse nor oppose Proposal 1. Rich Studley, the state chamber president, said the decision was made because of a lack of a “high level of consensus” from members.
“Business people on this issue tend to be, like other voters across the state, in agreement that we need to fix the roads and improve public transit,” Studley said. “It isn’t about should we or shouldn’t we, it’s about the proposal that’s before the voters. Members are appropriately cautious about amending the state constitution. This is a proposal to raise taxes and increase spending. It’s complicated. It’s not easy to explain. There are a lot of moving parts.”
Flint Mayor Dayne Walling agrees.
“I don’t think the public has been included in the dialogue about the options for additional funding for schools and local communities yet,” said Walling, who hasn’t taken a stand on Proposal 1. “The public is ready to pay more for roads. (But) this roundabout approach raises a number of questions about whether voters are going to get what they want out of this change.”
Walling was a Rhodes scholar, the elite honor bestowed upon 32 of the brightest graduates of U.S. universities. But where Proposal 1 is concerned, Walling said that he’s pretty sure he understands it, but he’s no Roads scholar, admitting, “It is confusing.”