Snyder stresses safety as road campaign kicks off

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder plans to make public safety on Michigan roads the key message in selling a sales tax hike to voters this spring, even as the campaign by supporters gets off to a rocky start.

A campaign team of consultants that had spent more than a month laying the groundwork for promoting Proposal 1 on the May 5 ballot abruptly quit this week and was replaced Thursday at the direction of Snyder's office.

In addition, early public polling released Thursday showed less than 50 percent support for a nearly 17 percent increase in the sales tax rate as part of a complicated plan to raise $1.2 billion more annually for roads.

Snyder sought to downplay the campaign's early hiccups, saying Thursday there's a compelling case to make to voters that the tax increase is needed to improve driving conditions for motorists traversing Michigan's crumbling roads and bridges.

"It's scary if you go underneath one of these bridges and think about a chunk of concrete falling on your vehicle or if you're out and you hit a pothole and you blow a tire or something, that's a terrifying event," Snyder said.

With 95 days until Election Day, political consultants say polling should show more than 60 percent support to safeguard against opposition to a plan that not only raises the taxes, but pumps more money into schools, municipalities and tax credits for the working poor. The 6 percent sales tax would increase to 7 percent.

Limited timeframe

T.J. Bucholz, a Democratic consultant, said Snyder's office has "frittered away" valuable time changing campaign teams as questions remain about who will fund a multi-million-dollar ad campaign.

"They've lost six weeks of time that they could have used educating voters," said Bucholz, president of Vanguard Public Affairs in Lansing.

The group of consultants that quit this week ran the Snyder administration's successful August ballot campaign to gradually repeal the state's personal property tax on industrial equipment. But it had "philosophical differences" with the governor on the sales tax campaign and parted ways, said Howard Edelson, a Democratic political strategist.

"I wouldn't describe this as a shake-up, this is the startup," Snyder said Thursday after speaking to a group of community college leaders in Lansing.

New team named

Lansing public relations firm Martin Waymire Advocacy Communications and WWP Strategies, a Republican advertising firm, will be part of the new "consultants team" running the campaign, spokesman Roger Martin said Thursday.

"All across the state we're seeing examples of not just dangerous roads, but fatal roads," said Martin, partner at Martin Waymire. "We'll make sure voters understand that when they go to vote on May 5."

Snyder also sought to tamp down concerns raised by a prominent conservative economist that the road funding package could prevent Michigan taxpayers from deducting their vehicle registration property taxes on their federal income taxes.

Economist Patrick Anderson said Wednesday that the pending change in the vehicle registration tax law could result in $410 million in fewer deductions for up to 1.2 million Michigan taxpayers, increasing federal income tax bills in the state by $102 million annually.

"I'm not taking his conclusion as certain," Snyder said. "That's one economist's opinion."

The decision whether Michigan taxpayers could still deduct those vehicle taxes rests with the Internal Revenue Service.

An IRS spokesman said Wednesday the agency does not comment on the impact of pending state-level legislation. The change in vehicle registration taxes will take effect only if voters approve the sales tax increase.

"There's a lot in this legislation that wasn't thought out or analyzed because it was passed at the last minute," said Keith Allard, spokesman for Protect MI Taxpayers, an opposition group.

Snyder said the Legislature could make "some slight changes" to the bill to ensure Michigan taxpayers can still legally deduct their vehicle registration taxes from the taxable income with the IRS.

"This is not a big thing that people should dwell on," Snyder said.

'People can't afford it'

On a bipartisan vote, the Republican-controlled Legislature placed the sales tax on the May 5 ballot in the final hours of last month's lame duck session.

The constitutional amendment was paired with a series of bills changing the motor fuel tax rates, repealing sales taxes on fuel, hiking fees for heavy commercial trucks and ending depreciation discounts on vehicle registration taxes. In addition to $1.2 billion in more money for roads, the package of bills includes $300 million more public education, $95 million in revenue sharing for local governments and $260 million in new tax credits for the working poor.

Earlier this month, Edelson formed the Michigan Citizens for Better Roads and Schools ballot campaign committee to support a "yes" vote on Proposal 1.

Edelson assembled a campaign team that included the bipartisan Lansing public relations firm Truscott Rossman, Glengariff Group pollster Richard Czuba and Joe Slade White & Company, a Democratic political advertising firm. Czuba has worked for both political parties and has conducted polling for The Detroit News.

"I wish the governor well in his efforts to pass it," Edelson said.

The consultants' withdrawal came as a poll was released Thursday showing the road plan ballot measure doesn't have the support of a majority of Michigan voters.

And the support appears to decline the more the voters learn about the plan, which includes several pieces of legislation on non-road issues.

A poll of 600 likely 2016 presidential voters in the state found 46 percent would vote "yes" on the sales tax hike and 41 percent against, according to EPIC-MRA, a Lansing firm that did the Jan. 24-27 poll on its own and without any client. The margin of error was plus-minus 4 percentage points.

But the support slipped to 38 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed after hearing details of the plan.

Voters were told the sales tax hike plan would raise $1.3 billion more for roads and bridges, $300 million extra for public schools and $95 million more for local governments.

Retiree Joseph Noll, 76, of Clinton Township said Thursday he doesn't believe state and local governments are properly maintaining the roads and intends to vote "no" on the sales tax increase.

"People can't afford it," Noll said. "It's getting to be foolish. They're nitpicking the taxpayers' pockets."

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