Gov. Whitmer proposes $79B budget with record school funding, tax relief

Prop 1 suffers worst ballot smackdown in decades

Chad Livengood and Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Proposal 1 suffered the worst defeat Tuesday of any Michigan constitutional amendment ballot measure since the current constitution was adopted more than a half-century ago, as 80.1 percent of voters rejected the sales tax increase and road funding plan.

The prior low mark of a constitutional ballot measure was set in 1980, when 78.8 percent of the electorate beat back Proposal A, which would have shifted taxes to ensure equal school funding among all districts in the state, according to state records. It was up against two property tax relief measures that attracted more votes even though they, too, were struck down.

This year's thumping occurred even though the measure was backed by Gov. Rick Snyder as well as the Republican and Democratic legislative leaders from last year's Michigan House and Senate. The Safe Roads Yes campaign ended up amassing about $9.5 million, 27 times as much money as the roughly $350,000 the three opposition campaigns had combined. The result was a 4-1 defeat of the ballot proposal lawmakers cobbled together a week before Christmas.

"It was just an old-fashioned shellacking by the voters," said Tom Shields, founder and president of the 36-year-old Marketing Resource Group political consultancy in Lansing.

"And we've had some really bad proposals over the years. I've never seen anything like it."

Snyder said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters that he doesn't view the results as a message from voters that they won't accept any tax increase to fund road repairs. But he later described his political predicament in an unusually colorful way during an event in Holland.

"Right now, I'm in a pothole several feet deep," the governor said. "We've got to dig ourselves out, dust ourselves off and get back to work."

The governor may not take much of a political hit from Proposal 1's defeat, opponents and political experts said.

"I don't think the governor is the guy to blame," Democratic consultant Robert Kolt said. "I just don't know what else he could do."

But the political news organization Politico reported Wednesday, citing two unnamed sources it said were familiar with his planning, that Snyder has ruled out a White House bid in part because of the time commitment needed for out-of-state travel. Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel denied the report, saying "the governor has not made a decision on whether to run for president."

Snyder is scheduled to visit New York City Thursday and Friday to visit Bloomberg News and likely the New York Stock Exchange.

"The governor is still traveling to New York as planned to tell the Michigan comeback story," said spokesman Jarrod Agen. "He has not made any official announcements or decisions about the presidential campaign."

Snyder is said to be weighing the immediate summer-long out-of-state travel commitment of a presidential campaign with his unfinished initiatives of overhauling Detroit schools and getting a new deal with lawmakers on road funding.

"He still wants to make sure the country knows all of the great things that have been accomplished in Michigan in the last four years," Agen said.

Kolt said the political fallout from Proposal 1 may be minimal because most politicians on both sides of the political aisle had "run away from this thing months ago. Any politician who had anything to lose was running away from this. It was kind of sad, but not surprising to see."

Paul Mitchell, a Saginaw County businessman who spent his own money to help defeat Proposal 1, said he doesn't see immediate political fallout from the failure of the measure unless the state legislators fail to find a solution.

"If they fail to act, then I think there may be some backlash on that, if they get to the fall and they haven't put forth a responsible road package," he said. "I would think the frustration of voters could bubble over and carry into the 2016 elections."

Asked if Snyder took it on the chin since many Republicans opposed the measure, Mitchell said, "I think we have to make a distinction here between disagreeing on a policy, which is what I and a number of people did, and supporting the governor as we have in the past."

But the defeat may have reverberations for the 2018 election to succeed a term-limited Snyder.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, considered a possible 2018 candidate, campaigned for Proposal 1, saying it would end a complex legal structure of the 6 percent sales taxes on fuel being diverted to schools and cities instead of roads. Early Wednesday morning, he conceded Proposal 1 was "too complex and dealt with too many different issues."

"Takeaway: Narrow and simplify whatever comes next," Calley wrote in a Facebook post.

Calley said lawmakers should work on an alternative plan that is limited to transportation spending and avoids the ballot box.

By contrast, fellow Republican and Attorney General Bill Schuette in March pointedly criticized the proposal's $700 million in added taxes and spending on schools, municipalities and a tax break for low-income families as policy "potholes," adding that there was "too much under the Christmas tree" for non-road spending.

"The people of Michigan have spoken," Schuette said Tuesday night. "I believe the roads need to be fixed and remain optimistic that a new approach will emerge in the near future."

The ballot proposal got off to a rough start in early January when a team of political consultants quit the fledgling campaign over differences in strategy with Snyder's office.

While the "yes" campaign was trying to regroup, Mitchell set up an opposition group and began lambasting the proposal for directing $700 million to areas unrelated to repairing roads, such as education, cities, public transit and an expanded tax break for the working poor.

Mitchell called the non-road spending "a $700 million toll to special interests," defining the issue before the "yes" campaign could respond on the airwaves.

"It seems like his messaging just directly undercut the entire proposal," said Stu Sandler, a Republican political consultant who worked on Mitchell's failed 2014 congressional campaign. "By the time they had regrouped, the public kind of already had made up its mind. I think the (road) safety message really wasn't received well by the public, they were suspect of it almost."

Staff Writer David Shepardson contributed.