Lansing — Michigan voters will decide the fate of a sales tax increase linked to road improvements because that's what lawmakers proposed after deadlocking on directly raising taxes themselves.
But in the months since, legislators have mostly kept quiet on what Gov. Rick Snyder says is the most pressing issue facing the state. Few, in fact, replied to an Associated Press survey asking how they intend to vote on May 5.
Thirty-one, or 21 percent, of the Republican-controlled Legislature's 148 members sent back responses to a short email with three questions. The vast majority — 23 — came from among 58 Democrats, with all but one saying they would vote for the constitutional amendment. Of the eight Republicans who answered out of 90, three were in support.
"A profile of cowardliness. That is pathetic," Bill Ballenger, associate editor of Inside Michigan Politics and a former Republican lawmaker, said of the low response rate.
New lawmakers who took office weeks after the lame-duck deal was struck answered the AP questionnaire more frequently than returning legislators, at a clip of 28 percent vs. 18 percent.
"The fact that they don't want to give their opinion — they're afraid. They're afraid it's going to hurt them politically. I can't believe they could actually be undecided at this point," Ballenger said.
The common refrain among Democrats who replied is that while the wide-ranging plan has flaws, they worry if it's defeated that the GOP majority will take a second look at a plan that would have diverted money from schools and local governments for road and bridge repairs without hiking taxes.
"The citizens will be paying one way or another, and I would rather people pay to have their roads fixed than pay to have their cars fixed — rims, tires, bumpers, etc.," said Rep. Andy Schor of Lansing.
Said a fellow second-term Democrat, Rep. Bill LaVoy of Monroe: "There is much debate on its faults and merits, yet this is the only plan to come from the current leadership of the last four-plus years. It is a bipartisan plan that was the result of compromise. While it is a bit complex, it pays down debt and invests in infrastructure."
Republican critics of the ballot initiative who responded said voters deserve better.
"I am against raising taxes of any kind, and it is not necessary to do so in order to redirect existing tax dollars to repair of roads and bridges," said Rep. Gary Glenn of Midland, who is sponsoring legislation — which passed the House but not the Senate last year — to gradually remove the sales tax from fuel while raising gasoline and diesel taxes.
"There are too many other ancillary items added into this proposal. It should have been a roads-only proposal," said another first-term Republican opponent of Proposal 1, Rep. Jim Runestad of White Lake Township.
Reasons for the relative silence from the Capitol probably vary.
Most of the plan's top architects in legislative leadership had to leave under term limits days after the Legislature put it on the ballot. Rank-and-file Republicans may be avoiding publicly trashing a plan backed by Snyder, a fellow Republican.
Others who voted for the public vote likely have since heard from some angry constituents. Others may see no upside to announcing their position when polling indicates the measure's in trouble.
Legislators appear to be focused on educating voters about the proposal by holding town hall-type events in their districts. Lawmakers who supported asking voters to weigh in will undoubtedly still face accusations from future political opponents that their vote was akin to supporting the tax hikes themselves, Ballenger said.
The broad, bipartisan coalition of supporters campaigning for passage says the tide is turning and polls — especially on ballot proposals — can be off base. Michigan voters historically have rejected statewide tax hike proposals, last authorizing a net tax increase in 1960 when the sales tax increased from 3 percent to 4 percent.
Proposal 1 proposes an increase in the sales tax to 7 percent from 6 percent while removing it from fuel.
Ten other laws will take effect only if the amendment is approved, including restructuring and more than doubling the 19-cents-a-gallon state gasoline tax and increasing vehicle registration taxes to generate $1.4 billion more annually for roads, bridges and public transit within a couple of years. Since the sales tax at the pump primarily goes to schools and local governments, lawmakers called for a sales tax boost to offset the lost revenue and actually provide $430 million more in funding annually.
"While it is not a perfect solution, it untangles the complicated road funding structure currently in place. With passage of Proposal 1, the money paid at the pump by those using the roads will be spent to maintain the roads and money generated from our sales tax will create a more stable funding source for our schools and local communities," said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a Republican from West Olive.
Another of the plan's supporters, second-term Democratic Rep. Pam Faris of Clio said there's no viable alternative solution at hand.
"I don't think this Legislature will come up with additional revenue if Proposal 1 fails," she said.
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