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Avoiding the nightmare scenario

Well, it’s Groundhog Day, and whether or not your local woodchuck sees his shadow, this much is clear:

The May 5th ballot proposal to raise the sales tax to fix the roads is in trouble. Last week was a horrible one for Governor Rick Snyder, the public face behind the push for this proposal. 

First, economist Patrick Anderson, head of the Anderson Economic Group, said passing this would cost citizens a major tax deduction.

That, he said, is because it would accidentally change Michigan vehicle registration fees, to a non-deductible excise tax.

Governor Snyder said he thought Anderson was wrong, but this certainly didn’t help his cause. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which was strongly in favor of raising gas taxes to fix the roads, is also refusing to endorse the sales tax increase.

And if that wasn't enough, Truscott Rossman and an associated team of campaign specialists essentially fired the governor and withdrew from the team promoting the proposal.

Those backing the "yes" campaign promptly hired Martin Waymire and WWP Strategies, two well-regarded firms, but we were left with a picture of a campaign in disarray.

All this could make it hard to raise the millions the governor’s side is going to need to run a campaign to persuade voters to show up and vote yes. Now here’s why this matters so much: Suppose Proposal A IS defeated at the polls. If the voters turn this down, that would make it all but politically impossible to raise any taxes.

This would mean the roads would continue to get worse, which would be bad for this state’s economy and all of us. But here’s a solution. The legislature should pass a law now saying that if the sales tax proposal is turned down, then the state would get the billions needed to fix our roads from a combination of increases in vehicle registration fees and the gas tax.

That was, by the way, how the governor wanted to get the money in the first place – and is still probably the best, fairest and most practical way to go.

Now before you say “They can’t do that,” guess what: They can, and they have. Remember Proposal A, the 1994 ballot measure that revolutionized how we fund elementary and high school education?

Well, that’s how the lawmakers got the voters to pass it. In March of 1994, seventy percent of the voters approved Proposal A, which raised the state sales tax from four to six percent.

But if they had voted Proposal A down, a law passed by the legislature would have instead raised the state income tax to six percent. Voters didn’t have a yes or no option; they had either/or.

The roads in Michigan are falling apart. They will be in worse shape after this winter. The actual amount needed to get them up to decent shape is probably more like two billion a year, for at least the next decade.

Anyone who tells you they can find the money to do this without raising taxes is ignorant or lying.

We have to fix the roads. This is a perfect chance for lawmakers to put aside petty partisanship and do the right thing for my axles, your tires, and the next generation.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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