August 21, 2014 at 9:06 am

Laura Berman

Warren Mayor Fouts sues to stop Prop 1

Fouts (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts didn’t simply threaten to sue after Proposition 1 was approved by 69 percent of Michigan primary voters. He sued.

Days after the August election, he dashed off a personal check to the Michigan Court of Claims for $150 and filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Secretary of State office, the elections director, the state board of canvassers and even Kelly Rossman-McKinney, the Lansing public relations pro whose formidable power of persuasion helped get the law passed.

Fouts, a Democrat known for his combustible, quirky style and penchant for quoting Harry Truman, has no political allies in this unlikely quest for justice. He’s on his own. Republicans and Democrats effectively joined forces to endorse the half-billion-a-year tax cut, and that clever public relations campaign won support from police and firefighters associations and even librarians.

But Fouts’ lawsuit deserves our attention.

The city of Warren, now devastated by flood waters, stands to lose millions of dollars of annual tax revenue because Proposition 1 wipes out the business personal property tax — a tax on factory machinery that pours $11 million into Warren every year.

Like many of us, he couldn’t parse the intricacies of the proposal until it was full upon him. By the time he fully understood the import of Proposition 1, the board of canvassers had certified the proposal language, which promised to “modernize the tax system to help small business grow and create jobs.”

“I don’t understand how you can word a proposal like a sales pitch and get it on the ballot,” he says. This is, in fact, a valid argument, given the perfect PR pitch of “modernize” and the factual squishiness of the proposal’s likelihood to help small business (it’s an overwhelming win for auto companies and other major industries) or create jobs.

By the time Fouts figured out what Proposition 1 really was — a tax break for big business with ambiguous guarantees to replace lost revenue — he was late to the game: The time to appeal the proposal language had passed. And the proposal, heavily backed by industrial might, had no formal opposition.

Instead, there was the tug of the herd — as party leaders on both sides pushed for passage. And the threat of dire consequences (Fouts calls it “blackmail”) if the measure failed.

So now Fouts is having one of those “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” moments, fighting alone for “the sanctity of the ballot.” “It’s the greatest con job in the history of Michigan,” he says, perhaps overstating his case.

To bolster his lawsuit, he’s included affidavits from Warren residents such as Walter Tomsic, who says: “It wasn’t until after I voted that I came to the conclusion ... that John Q. Public ... get(s) the short end of the stick and Big Business are benefiting.”

While I don’t expect Fouts to convince a judge to repeal the law or reword it for the November election, his lonely cause has merit: If even one voter — or legislator — thinks twice before being herded into line or accepting public relations spin on a state ballot, that’s a difference, one worth making.

lberman@detroitnews.com
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