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Big sales job needed with road funding vote 2 months away

Jack Lessenberry

Twenty-one years ago, Michigan voters drastically changed the way public education is funded by adopting what we still call Proposal A. That shifted much of the burden of paying for the schools from each local community to the state itself.

And to do that, voters raised the sales tax from 4% to 6%. Now, on May 5th, they’ll be asked to raise the sales tax another penny to fix our disintegrating roads.

Earlier this week, I got a message from Tom Watkins about all this.

Watkins, now CEO of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority, is a man of many hats. He’s been state superintendent of schools, Michigan mental health director, and is probably our biggest unofficial booster of increased ties with China.

Watkins doesn’t know how voters could even think of turning down what has now been officially named Proposal 1.

“We need to fix our unsafe roads and bridges,” he told me, adding that those who oppose this ballot proposal “insult voters.”

“Proposal 1 will fix much of what needs fixing in Pure Michigan,” he said, arguing that “a society that invests in itself prospers. The ones that don’t, remain in an unsafe rut.”

Voters have told pollsters that they want the roads fixed. But this ballot proposal is complicated. It isn’t straightforward, and it isn’t just about the roads. When voters look at the ballot, just the caption alone will read:

“A proposal to amend the State Constitution to increase the sales/use tax from six to seven percent to replace and supplement reduced revenue to the School Aid Fund and other units of government caused by the elimination of the sales/use tax on gasoline and diesel fuel for vehicles operating on public roads, and to give effect to laws that provide additional money for roads and other transportation purposes by increasing the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.”

Sound confusing?

That’s just the preamble.

Voters who read the actual ballot language may realize that it also would raise about $300 million a year for public schools, $100 million for mass transit and $95 million for local governments.

It would also fully restore the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. Watkins says those are “all needed and worthy expenditures.”

But what they do is make this an overloaded proposal that even Watkins concedes is “clearly complex."

There are bound to be voters who are willing to tax themselves for the roads, but not for mass transit or local government.

And when voters don't understand something, they tend to vote no.

How will they vote?

There are certain to be many more voters who will look at this thing, be unable to fully understand it, and zone out.

And when voters don’t understand something, they tend to vote no.

There’s something else we need to remember about good old Proposal A. People really didn’t have much choice.

The lawmakers had set things up so that if the voters had said no, their income taxes would automatically have increased instead. Here, if they vote no, their taxes won’t increase.

The roads, however, will keep falling apart. The governor and his team have a big selling job to do.

They’ve got barely two months, and as far as I can tell, they’ve barely started.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. 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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