Poll: State residents evenly divided on sales tax hike

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan voters are deeply divided about whether to increase the state sales tax to 7 percent as part of a complex plan to boost annual spending on road repairs by $1.2 billion, according to a statewide poll released exclusively to The Detroit News.

The poll of 600 likely voters commissioned by Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs found a split on the question of whether voters support the sales tax hike — 37 percent support and 37 percent oppose the ballot initiative. Another 26 percent said they were unsure in the survey with a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

With less than three months until the May 5 vote, the early polling does not bode well for Gov. Rick Snyder's "yes" campaign, said T.J. Bucholz, president and CEO of Vanguard Public Affairs.

"There's an awful lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in," said Bucholz, a Democratic political strategist not working for or against the ballot initiative. "To be at 37 (percent), I think has got to be disheartening if you're one of the members of the coalition trying to pass this thing."

The general rule among political consultants for Michigan ballot campaigns is they need at least 60 percent support at the start to survive opposition advertising on Election Day, Bucholz said.

Roger Martin, spokesman for the Safe Roads Yes campaign and a veteran of past ballot proposals, said the conventional wisdom in Lansing about polling on ballot campaigns is unsettled. He noted the 1996 proposal to authorize three casinos to operate in Detroit polled below 50 percent until Election Day, when 51.5 percent of voters approved the measure.

"It's almost impossible to accurately poll a ballot question," Martin said. "We are confident that when voters understand that every penny we pay in state gas taxes will be guaranteed in the constitution for roads, bridges and transportation, they will vote yes."

In the Vanguard Public Affairs poll, opposition to Proposition 1 was highest among independent voters, with 45 percent indicating they are "no" votes at this point.

"For an initiative like this, independent voters are everything," Bucholz said. "If you're starting with half of the independent voters already opposed or very opposed to it, your climb just gained a degree of difficulty that you didn't need."

The telephone operator poll was conducted Feb. 2-5 by East Lansing-based Denno Research. The pollster sampled likely 2016 presidential election voters, with 36 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, 28 percent Republicans and 32 percent independents.

Denno Research's question told respondents that a "majority" of the money raised by the sales tax will go toward fixing Michigan's roads. The question did not mention the plethora of other spending items tied to passage of Proposition 1, including $300 million for public schools and $260 million in increased tax credits for low-income working families.

Under the road funding plan, the sales tax increase will go directly toward schools and municipalities to replace lost revenue from a repeal of the sales tax on fuel, which currently doesn't go to roads. Passage of Proposition 1 will then trigger the implementation of a new wholesale fuel tax rate that earmarks all taxes at the pump for roads, bridges and public transit.

"This is not perfect, but it's the last chance we have for this constitutional guarantee to pay for roads," Martin said.

Proposition 1 has already drawn four opposition groups, one of which is led by millionaire Saginaw County businessman Paul Mitchell, who has said opposition campaigns will match the proponents dollar for dollar in campaign spending. Republican Mitchell spent $3.5 million of his own fortune last year in a failed bid for Congress.

"That's got to be one of the most disconcerting pieces of news to come out of the last couple of weeks for the prospect of passing this thing," Bucholz said.

On Tuesday, Mitchell's group, the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals, launched a website. Safe Roads Yes will have a website live on Friday, Martin said.