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Campaign builds for approval of tax hikes for roads

David Eggert
Associated Press

Lansing — The campaign to coax voters to raises taxes for road repairs is intensifying, with proponents utilizing TV ads and local emergency responders to warn that Michigan's roads and bridges are unsafe after years of deterioration.

The push, which comes as absentee ballots start going out for the May 5 election, demonstrates recent momentum for Proposal 1 after a bumpy start. Supporters still face built-in resistance to tax increases, an intricately worded proposal and public distrust with the Legislature, but they have financial, political and other advantages at their disposal.

The strategy is three-fold: scare voters with ads showing dangerous road conditions; note there is no viable Plan B in the Capitol to fix roads; and focus on funding and other "guarantees" included in the lawmaker-proposed constitutional amendment.

"It's this or nothing," said Dave Waymire, a spokesman for the Safe Roads Yes ballot committee. "You can't get something for nothing."

In recent days, a dozen county sheriffs joined the "yes" campaign as did the AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization for 59 unions. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and his 2010 Democratic opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, appeared separately to launch events with law enforcers, firefighters, elected officials and business leaders endorsing the measure.

The ads have highlighted a family, a school bus driver and a woman who says loose concrete kicked up on a Detroit-area interstate, smashed her windshield and came within inches of her daughter's face.

Opponents aired an ad in February with help from a former Saginaw-area businessman who ran for Congress last year. No ads have run since, though the proposal's detractors received a boost when the powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce decided to stay neutral rather than help fund the "yes" side.

"This is more … guerrilla warfare. We're out there speaking to groups, we're out traveling the state and coalescing the grassroots," said Scott Hagerstrom, director of grassroots and strategic engagement with the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals. "This is about getting accurate information out there, not talking in platitudes, not necessarily a lot of 30-second ads."

The "no" side is not disputing the need to spend more to keep the transportation network up to par. Its primary message is that legislators overstepped by making the amendment about more than finding $1.2 billion a year more for roads.

"Only in Lansing do you have a compromise where you go from between zero and $1.2 (billion) and you come out with $2 (billion)," Hagerstrom said. "I think a lot of voters are shaking their heads."

Proposal 1 asks voters if they want to increase the state sales tax to 7 percent from 6 percent while removing it from fuel.

Ten other laws will take effect only if the amendment is approved — including restructuring and more than doubling the 19-cents-a-gallon state gasoline tax and increasing vehicle registration taxes to help generate $1.2 billion more annually for roads and bridges and $100 million for public transit.

Schools and municipalities would initially receive nearly $400 million in additional funding under the sales tax hike. Low-wage earners would see a tax credit worth $260 million, a nod to concerns that sales taxes disproportionately hit the poor.

Knowing there is voter confusion over a proposal with so many components, supporters are emphasizing that it would address a critique of how Michigan now pays for road repairs and maintenance.

The state has some of the country's highest taxes at the pump yet spends less per-capita on roads than 48 other states in part because the sales tax applied to fuel mostly goes to education and local governments under the state constitution.

"When people say, 'It sounds very complicated,' the real problem is what we have today is complicated and we're actually simplifying it," Snyder said. "By voting 'yes,' we'll change it so all (of) what you pay at the pump goes to transportation, which is what people want. … To make sure we're keeping (education and local governments) whole, that's where we're increasing the retail sales tax."