Foes attack Prop 1 as 'special interest' giveaway

Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — Opponents are blasting $700 million in alleged "special interest" giveaways and a $51 million proposal for new Senate offices in ad campaigns launched this week attacking Gov. Rick Snyder's $1.2 billion road funding proposal.

A group called Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals, backed by wealthy Saginaw Township businessman Paul Mitchell, began a six-figure multimedia campaign Tuesday that he said will run for about two weeks.

The ads criticize the fact that a $300-million annual increase for schools, $95 million for local governments and a $260-million tax break for low-income workers are tied to the one-penny-per-dollar sales tax hike Snyder and legislative leaders want voters to approve May 5 as part of the plan to boost road repair funding $1.2 billion annually.

At the same time, West Michigan political strategist John Yob took to Facebook with posts tying the proposal to year-long planning by the 38-member Senate to move to new offices. The move is spurred by security concerns and updates needed at their current Farnum Building quarters.

"Lansing politicians are buying a new $50,000,000 office for themselves while they are also asking taxpayers to approve a 17 percent — billion-dollar — middle-class tax increase to pay for roads," Yob charges.

The attacks come as Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley are making speeches in support of the ballot proposal, but there hasn't been a start of the pro-roads plan ad campaign by supporters such as the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

Mitchell said the Coalition Against Higher Taxes is focusing its initial ad buy to reach the maximum television viewing audience. Ads were to air, for example, during Tuesday night's men's basketball showdown between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

He told The Detroit News he will continue until May 5 to buy TV, radio and digital advertising. The funding is "largely my money" but does include contributions from a few other opponents of the proposal, too, said Mitchell, who is listed as treasurer of the group.

"We believe the roads need work, but if we want good roads way are we putting money into this grab-bag?" he said.

Mitchell spent nearly $3.6 million of his own money in a failed attempt last year to win Michigan's Fourth Congressional District Republican primary against then state Sen. John Moolenaar of Midland.

Backers: No special handouts

Roger Martin, spokesman for the Safe Roads Yes! campaign in support of the ballot measure, said there are no special interests who'll get handouts if voters approve the sales tax hike.

"Proposal 1's strongest supporters are police officers, sheriffs, firefighters, and school bus drivers from across Michigan whose only interest is passing the ballot question so we can have safe roads and bridges paid for with funds guaranteed in the Constitution to go only to transportation needs," Martin said. "The lone politician who is apparently bankrolling this ad clearly has his own special interest in mind, but no interest in restoring the safety of our crumbling and dangerous roads, highways and bridges."

Lawmakers late last year began with a Senate plan to raise all of the needed road money through fuel tax increases and a more-modest House plan to raise a little less than half the $1.2 billion through state budget maneuvers instead of higher taxes.

In negotiations that lasted through the final night of the two-year legislative session in December, they agreed to the current proposal, which would end the sales tax on fuel and switch to a higher wholesale fuel tax for the $1.2 billion in road money. It asks voters to raise the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent so schools and local governments don't lose money in the deal.

But to rustle up the votes for approval, Snyder and GOP legislative leaders were forced to agree to Democratic demands for the more money for education, local governments and the state Earned Income Tax Credit.

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, rejected Yob's characterization of the proposed office move. She said the proposal began at least a year ago — long before the roads plan came together — under prior Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville.

Meekhof, who took over as majority leader at the start of the year, has been re-evaluating the plan but said Tuesday he sees value in it and released details of competing office space bids that he said indicate the current proposal is a good deal for the Senate.

"I've met with the Secretary of the Senate and the Senate Business Office, and I believe the choice to move to new office space in Capitol View has merit," Meekhof said in a statement. "Increased security and improved technology and accessibility are worthy considerations as is the opportunity to save the state money."

Building move to save cash

The effort was designed to determine if remodeling and improved security measures needed at the Farnum Building would be more or less costly than simply leasing or buying space in another structure near the Capitol. Initial estimates said repairs and updates at the Farnum, which the Senate offices have occupied since 1978, would cost at least $25 million.

Following a bid process, McCann said, it was determined that the least expensive space per square foot would be in the nearby Capitol View building, where members' offices would occupy the basement and first seven floors.

The Michigan Strategic Fund board has authorized a bond sale of up to $70 million to finance the plan, she said, but there's no final decision at this point. Lawmakers still would have to pass legislation to permit the move.

McCann said the Senate office move would be part of a series of state building shuffles by the Snyder administration and lawmakers that should benefit taxpayers.

The shuffles include a planned move of state health department offices from the Capitol View building to the current Michigan State Police headquarters in downtown Lansing. The State Police headquarters would move to a state-owned office campus in southwest Lansing.

"The State of Michigan ends up saving millions of dollars as part of the transition taking place," McCann said. "And we would get to occupy a new space without having to go through the upgrading needed at the Farnum Building."

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