No Prop 1 campaigns at Dem convention
Detroit — There’s a statewide election less than 80 days away on a plan to boost funding for roads, schools and municipalities, but you wouldn’t have known it at the Michigan Democratic Party’s state convention over the weekend.
There was no visible sign of campaigns for or against Proposal 1 during a gathering of nearly 1,400 Democrats at Cobo Center. And nearly a dozen Democratic Party leaders who spoke on stage Saturday afternoon did not utter a single word about the looming sales tax vote on the May 5 ballot.
Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, which has endorsed Proposal 1, noticed the absence of campaigning for the ballot initiative at the state convention.
“I don’t know what the reason for that is,” Cook said. “It could be (they’re) reading the handwriting on the wall.”
Democrats and their allies in organized labor, however, have much to gain politically if voters green light an increase in the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, which will trigger a change in fuel taxes to raise $1.2 billion more annually for road and bridge repairs.
In a rare legislative victory for the minority party, Gov. Rick Snyder and Republican legislative leaders agreed to restore $260 million in income tax credits for the working poor and boost education funding by $300 million annually in order to secure Democratic votes for placing the sales tax increase before voters. Municipalities also stand to gain about $100 million in annual revenue-sharing if Proposal 1 passes.
Unionized road construction companies are expected to support the sales tax increase because of the additional work they stand to gain from a phased-in, three-year increase in spending.
Democrats also got a bill passed establishing a state study of the adequacy of public education funding — one of their major priorities for the past two years.
But it appears Democrats may not be done trying extract concessions from the GOP majority for their support of the road funding plan.
House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said Democrats want $1 million set aside to fund the education study so it can actually be conducted. The money could be added to midyear supplemental budget bills reducing spending that Snyder sent the Legislature last week.
“Obviously we want to make sure that the study gets funded,” Greimel told The Detroit News. “... We have said that we’d like the money to be appropriated.”
Greimel did not rule out Democrats withholding public support for Proposal 1 until they secure funding for the education study.
“We’re looking at all options,” Greimel said. “... I don’t want to get into hypotheticals. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring.”
Greimel, who has previously expressed support for the ballot initiative, did not mention Proposal 1 during his speech on the convention floor.
Political consultant Ed Sarpolus, who attended Saturday’s convention, noticed the absence of campaigning for Proposal 1, despite all of the Democratic legislative victories tied to the deal.
Sarpolus said Snyder may have to cough up the $1 million for the education funding study.
“He’s going to have to do something to engender the Democrats to become politically active in southeast Michigan on Proposal 1,” said Sarpolus, executive director of the Lansing firm Target-Insyght.
The MEA will urge its 145,000 active and retired members to vote “yes” on Proposal 1 because of the extra money for public education, but the teachers union is not supporting the campaign financially, Cook said.
“That did not come up,” John Bendzick, a Democratic precinct delegate from Dearborn, said about the sales tax vote.
Most elected Democratic leaders interviewed Saturday were noncommittal on whether they would publicly support Proposal 1.
“I haven’t decided whether I’ll take a formal position, but it’s obvious we’ve got to do something about roads and about our infrastructure,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township. “... I would have preferred that the governor and the Legislature taken a little more responsibility themselves.”
Some of the hesitation about supporting Proposal 1 among Democratic leaders appears to stem from the complexity of the proposal and their long-standing view that the sales tax is a regressive form of taxation that hits lower-income people harder than other consumers.
The sales tax increase won’t go directly to roads; rather, the money will be used to replace revenue lost from the repeal of the sales tax on gasoline. Upon passage of Proposal 1, the existing 19 cents-per-gallon gas tax will be replaced with a percentage-based tax that will be dedicated entirely to transportation infrastructure.
“I’ve got to spend some time looking it over,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. “I’m concerned that it isn’t really directly tied to roads, that it’s tacked on to the sales tax.”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she was leaning toward supporting the measure.
“At this point, it looks like it’s the only option if we want invest in (our roads),” Stabenow told The News. “... We certainly need the investment for jobs and for the roads.”