Panel OKs ballot wording for Prop 1 sales tax hike

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Board of State Canvassers on Thursday approved the wording of the sales tax increase proposal voters will decide in a May 5 statewide election on road funding.

The panel of two Democrats and two Republicans voted 3-1 on the precise 100-word statement attached to Proposal 1, which would hike the 6 percent sales tax to 7 percent and trigger a series of additional laws designed to raise $1.2 billion more annually for road and bridge repairs.

In addition to the new dedicated money for roads and bridges, the proposal includes $300 million more annually for education, $95 million for municipalities and $260 million in tax credits for low-income residents.

The elections panel adopted ballot language recommended by state Elections Director Chris Thomas, who included references to additional laws tied to the ballot proposal that would repeal the sales tax on gasoline and replace the revenue with a new fuel tax that can be increased with inflation.

"It would be highly misleading to voters to only describe the proposed constitutional question," Thomas said.

In December, the Legislature placed the sales tax increase on the May ballot and tied its passage to the enactment of new laws changing the fuel tax, eliminating discounts on vehicle registration fees, expanding competitive bidding for road construction work and imposing more stringent warranties on road work.

The other bills, which include a study of the adequacy of education funding, won't go into effect if voters reject the proposed constitutional amendment to increase the sales tax.

"This is as complex as I've seen," said Thomas, who has been elections director since 1981.

The board adopted a slight amendment Thomas proposed during Thursday's meeting to say the sales tax rate hike replaces "and supplements" the lost revenue from repealing the sales tax on gasoline and diesel.

The amendment was added at the urging of East Lansing economist Patrick Anderson, who has criticized the sweeping ballot proposal. "It much, much more than replaces that revenue," Anderson told the board.

The sales tax increase would generate nearly $700 million in additional revenue for non-transportation spending.

Gary Gordon, an attorney for the "yes" campaign, Safe Roads Yes, said the coalition endorses Thomas' ballot language.

"Nobody is going to be completely happy with whatever language … this board approves unless they draft it themselves," Gordon told the four-member panel.

Thomas considered input on the ballot wording from seven different individuals and groups who submitted their own language.

Gov. Rick Snyder and proponents of Proposal 1 have focused their "yes" campaign on improving the safety of Michigan's rugged roads, while opponents are trying to capitalize on earmark funding tacked on to the proposal that has nothing to do with transportation infrastructure.

One opponent said the approved ballot language is an outright "lie to voters" because it doesn't include specific dollar amounts for how much money will go to roads, schools, cities and tax credits for the working poor.

"We believe it needs to provide a clear explanation of these dollars, (that) nearly 40 percent doesn't even go to fix the roads," said Scott Hagerstrom, director of grassroots and strategic engagement of the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals.

Norm Shinkle, a Republican member of the board of canvassers, cast the lone "no" vote.

Colleen Pero, the other Republican canvasser, said the board was legally restricted to making an up-or-down decision on Thomas' proposed language.

"People who have testified that this is a complex issue, you're right. It is," Pero said. "I don't think that if we stay here another four hours that we're going to come any closer to satisfying everyone in this room."

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Proposal 15-1

How the May 5 ballot measure will read:

A proposal to amend the State Constitution to increase the sales/use tax from 6% to 7% to replace and supplement reduced revenue to the School Aid Fund and local units of government caused by the elimination of the sales/use tax on gasoline and diesel fuel for vehicles operating on public roads, and to give effect to laws that provide additional money for roads and other transportation purposes by increasing the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

The proposed constitutional amendment would:

■ Eliminate sales / use taxes on gasoline / diesel fuel for vehicles on public roads.

■ Increase portion of use tax dedicated to School Aid Fund (SAF).

■ Expand use of SAF to community colleges and career / technical education, and prohibit use for 4-year colleges / universities.

Give effect to laws, including those that:

■ Increase sales / use tax to 7 percent, as authorized by constitutional amendment.

■ Increase gasoline / diesel fuel tax and adjust annually for inflation, increase vehicle registration fees, and dedicate revenue for roads and other transportation purposes.

■ Expand competitive bidding and warranties for road projects.

■ Increase earned income tax credit.

Should this proposal be adopted?

YES [ ]

NO [ ]

Source: Michigan Bureau of Elections