Backers of sales tax hike for roads raise $3.2M

Chad Livengood and Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The group advocating a "yes" vote on the May 5 ballot for a sales tax increase plan tied to boosting road funding has raised nearly $3.2 million toward its campaign.

The Safe Roads Yes ballot committee reported Tuesday that $2.2 million of its initial donations came from the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, which represents road construction companies.

The Safe Roads Yes ballot committee reported Tuesday that $2.2 million of its initial donations came from the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, which represents road construction companies.

"We've been talking about improving our transportation network, making our roads and bridges and safer, for over eight years now," said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of MITA. "It shouldn't be a surprise that we would be a group that would step up and help fund this."

The ballot committee's other major donations include $200,000 from the Asphalt Pavement Association of Michigan, $250,000 from a DTE Energy entity and a $150,000 contribution from Consumers Energy. Business Leaders for Michigan's political action committee chipped in $30,000, according to the report.

Political experts have estimated the "yes" campaign may need to raise between $10 million and $15 million to get voters to approve increasing the 6 percent sales tax to 7 percent.

If approved by voters, the sales tax increase is a part of a plan to increase annual road funding by $1.2 billion.

"Coalition members are putting their resources behind their voices so voters will understand that a yes vote on Proposal 1 will make our roads safe again, put in place new guarantees on the work done and constitutional guarantees that gas taxes go only to transportation," Safe Roads Yes spokesman Roger Martin said in a statement.

Safe Roads Yes reported paying more than $135,000 to three consulting companies that withdrew from the campaign last month after strategic disagreements with Gov. Rick Snyder's office.

The group also reported having $631,000 in debts to a new team of political consultants, including $570,747 owed to Combat Data in DeWitt for "phone calls."

Opposition groups reported raising little to no money during the initial reporting period when most of them were just beginning to form. The Legislature placed the sales tax question on the ballot just before Christmas.

Ballot committees supporting and opposing Proposition 1 faced a Tuesday deadline to report their fundraising and spending activities from Jan. 1 through Feb. 10 to the state Bureau of Elections.

The Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals, a group run by Saginaw County millionaire Paul Mitchell, reported raising $1,075.

Mitchell said Tuesday he made a "six figure" contribution to the campaign after the Feb. 10 reporting period passed to finance a television, cable and digital advertising campaign the group launched Monday.

The Mitchell-funded group's first ad portrays Proposition 1 as a giveaway to "special interests" because, in addition to more money for roads, the sales tax hike would raise an extra $300 million annually for public education, $95 million for municipalities and $260 million for a tax break for the working poor.

"We believe the roads need work. But if we want good roads, why are we putting money into this grab bag?" Mitchell said.

Last year, Mitchell spent nearly $3.6 million of his own money in a failed congressional campaign.

Mitchell's emergence as a self-financing opponent of the sales tax increase has fueled speculation in political circles that he's using the issue to enhance his name identification with voters.

"This is a one-man special interest campaign of self-promotion, as far as I see it," Nystrom said. "He has no solution to actually fix Michigan's roads, and Proposal 1 is our best chance to actually do something about the crumbling roads and bridges here in Michigan."

Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature tacked on the additional spending items to get some Democrats to vote to place the sales tax constitutional amendment on the ballot.

But Democrats have been slow to rally their base to support the initiative.

The Michigan Education Association is urging its 145,000 active and retired members to vote "yes" on Proposition1 because of the extra money for public education.

But MEA President Steve Cook has said the teacher union's political coffers are tapped out from the recent general election.

"We don't think we have enough money to make a difference," Cook told The News at Saturday's Michigan Democratic Party convention.

As the Proposition 1 campaign heats up, one opponent is trying to link an unrelated spending decision looming in the Legislature to the sales tax hike.

GOP political strategist John Yob took to Facebook with posts last week 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 the 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," said Yob, treasurer of one of the opposition groups.

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.

Meekhof has been re-evaluating the plan but said Tuesday competing office space bids show it's a good deal for taxpayers. " "Increased security and improved technology and accessibility are worthy considerations, as is the opportunity to save the state money," he said.