What do you do when a ballot question requires a week’s worth of study and analysis to understand — and still begs for a judgment call?
That’s how many Michigan voters likely feel about Proposal 1, the Tuesday ballot question that’s won the kind of broad and bipartisan support rarely seen in the current age of massive political discord and dysfunction.
The backers range from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to the Michigan Library Association, from Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican. That public show of unity is much easier to appreciate than the legislation itself.
Proposal 1, which only hints at the complexity of the law in the simple ballot language to “modernize” taxes, poses a challenge even for voters with financial backgrounds.
The ballot proposal resulted from a 2012 vote by lawmakers to phase out the personal property tax on business — an annual tax on business equipment and machinery — as long as voters agreed. The case for eliminating the tax is an easy emotional argument, because nobody wants to pay taxes on equipment they’ve already paid for.
“It would be like you, as a homeowner, paying a tax every year on your dishwasher, and washer and dryer,” says Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokeswoman for Michigan Citizens for Strong and Safe Communities, the coalition of Proposal 1 backers.
Proposal 1 backers say the tax discourages investment and stalls economic growth.
“I’d like to see the data,” says Oakland County Treasurer Andrew Meisner, a former Democratic legislator who won’t vote for the proposal. “Local governments are being asked to make a sacrifice based on an unproven theory.” Having seen the Legislature close up, he now hesitates to trust it.
Eliminating the tax would cut some $500 million annually in revenue. That’s money now going directly into local treasuries, where it funds police, fire, library and other services. Proposal 1 promises to replace that revenue and to create a reliable way to do that — a promise that law enforcement associations, libraries and the Michigan Municipal League believe will be met.
Coalition members who depend on the local revenue have decided that the proposed solution is likely to be as good as they’ll get. Besides, if Proposal 1 fails, they say, Republicans will speedily vote to eliminate it again — without restoring lost revenue.
For Rossman-McKinney, the spokeswoman for Proposal 1, voters who are flummoxed ought to consider skipping the vote. “If you’re confused, you should probably not weigh in on that issue,” she suggests.
If you own a newspaper printing press or a factory that makes SUVs, say, this is an easy “yes.” For the rest of us, voting yes demands trust in an establishment consensus — or a skeptical hedge against a more Draconian solution.