Politics and Prejudices: The way to fix the roads

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Think our roads are bad now? Well, of course they are!

But soon, we may think of these as the good old days. After this winter, the roads will be worse. There's a statewide election May 5 in which we will be asked to boost the sales tax to fix the roads ... but voters will probably say no.

Then we will really be screwed.

So, what the hell's going on here?

First of all, voters do desperately want the roads fixed. Surveys show they are willing to pay more to do that.

We have close to the worst roads in the nation, partly because we live in a road-destroying climate, but also because we've been spending less on them per capita than any other state. Consequently, we are all paying hundreds of dollars a year in added wear and tear on our vehicles. New businesses don't want to come to a state where the roads and bridges look like something you'd expect in rural Guatemala.

We have to come up with, at minimum, $1.5 billion a year to fix our roads. However, trying to do it this way is crazy. Voters aren't used to elections in May, and many will forget about it. Nor is this a clean, simple constitutional amendment.

The ballot proposal itself is complex and nearly 300 words long.

It starts:


So from reading that, can you tell this is about increasing the sales tax to fix the roads?

No, and neither could Einstein.

And, actually, it's not. Michigan has a rule that any proposed constitutional amendment is supposed to have just one purpose. Not only does this one clearly have multiple purposes, it is linked to a Christmas basket of gifts.

Voters will be told if they pass this amendment, there will be goodies galore that have nothing to do with the roads, thanks to a flurry of other things tied to it.

The working poor will get their Earned Income Tax Credit fully restored! There will be a little more money for revenue-sharing for the cities, $70 million or so, and a bigger chunk of change for the schools. There will be changes in warranty requirements for construction projects, competitive bidding requirements, etc., etc., etc. For a while there, I even thought I was getting that pony at last.

That's not happening, but lots of cool stuff might ... if we only vote for the sales tax for the roads.

Legalized attempted bribery, you might say. However, it seems to be backfiring. Some Republicans, such as campaign strategist Greg McNeilly, are against the proposal.

They might have supported a straightforward bill to raise the sales tax, but they don't like all that other stuff.

Tea party idiots are even more strongly against it; these are, by and large, people who would have opposed raising taxes to fight the Japanese after they bombed Pearl Harbor. (Or was it the Germans?)

Nor can the governor count on much support from those who stand to gain the most from the other goodies. Sadly, groups like the working poor are among the least likely to vote in a regular election, let alone in May.

Things were looking bad to begin with. Then, two weeks ago, everything went really south for Uncle Rick. The political strategy team he had assembled to lead the campaign to get the sales tax passed quit — at the worst possible time.

That's because Patrick Anderson, a usually Republican-friendly economist who runs an East Lansing firm called the Anderson Economic Group, suddenly fired another torpedo into the sales tax proposal. Turns out, according to his analysis, it would cost almost everybody a tax deduction.

Right now, taxpayers can deduct their annual vehicle registration fees. But thanks to some of the too-fancy footwork associated with the ballot proposal, those fees would then be counted as excise taxes, which aren't deductible.

The governor challenged that interpretation, and it would probably end up in the courts. But in any event, it struck a blow to the hopes of selling the voters on this proposal.

But the odds were already bad. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which has been gung-ho for road repair, doesn't like getting the money from the sales tax.

Other traditional allies say they have no money for the campaign. To add insult to headache, a few tea party crazies are accusing the governor of violating campaign finance law by telling people to vote yes during his State of the State speech.

So the ballot proposal is likely going down. But there is still one way the roads and our economy can be saved.

Right now, the legislature should step up and pass a law saying that if the sales tax is voted down, an increase in the gas tax and car registration fees takes effect instead.


Well, guess what. They've done it before! Remember Proposal A, the 1994 ballot proposal that radically changed how we pay for elementary and high school education?

That's how the politicians got the voters to pass it. That proposal also funded the schools by raising the sales tax. But if the voters had turned it down, the schools would have been funded by an increase in the income tax instead.

Interestingly, almost nobody complained back then; they knew the schools needed to be fixed. That's where we should now be with the roads. Anyone who tells you our roads can be fixed without new money is ignorant, crazy, or lying.

This would be a perfect opportunity for a bipartisan coalition to show that representative democracy can still work.

So Lansing ... just do it.

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