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Rick Snyder will have to change his sales pitch if he hopes to close the deal with voters on a one-cent hike in the sales tax to fix Michigan's roads.

The governor thinks he's got a winning message in the reality that driving on pock-marked highways not only is unpleasant, but also hits motorists with higher vehicle repair bills.

That sure is true.

But it was also true last year, when Snyder dragged out his charts and carefully explained the cost/benefit ratio of raising taxes to smooth the roads. And the public didn't buy it.

At least they didn't buy in enough to pressure lawmakers to adopt higher fuel taxes. In fact, the Legislature mostly heard from those who threatened to boot them out if they dared pass a tax hike.

As weary as motorists are of abysmal roads, they haven't yet rallied around a revenue solution.

"We haven't done the job we need to do to build public support," says Doug Rothwell, chief executive of Business Leaders for Michigan and a proponent of raising more funds for roads. "We haven't prevailed on the public to convince legislators to do what they need to do."

That was obvious in December, when lawmakers walked out of the lame duck session without passing a road funding bill. Instead, they punted the decision to voters, who will be asked in a special May election to increase the sales tax.

At this point, I'd say the odds are long. Sales taxes are difficult to raise because they are so visible. The governor has a lot of selling to do.

"If the election were held today, I'd say it would fail," says Richard Studley, head of the state Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber hasn't yet decided to back the ballot proposal. Studley says his members are about equally divided on the issue, "but mostly they have more questions than answers."

Chief among those questions is whether the state should have reprioritized spending rather than raised taxes. Snyder has to make the case that existing funds can't get the job done.

He also has to explain why the measure raises so much money for things other than roads, including revenue sharing for local communities, restoration of the earned income tax credit and $300 million more for education. At least with the fuel tax residents can be certain the money goes into the highways.

While the road builders are expected to spend $20 million to pass the proposal, there are powerful opponents, too. Those include the airlines, which are arguing that diverting part of the aviation fuel tax to roads violates federal laws and will lead to fewer flights at state airports.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is convincing voters that the state is getting quality work for its road dollars, and protecting them from truck weights that are the heaviest in the nation.

Snyder has so far dismissed those concerns, but they're very real and could decide the vote.

Passing the proposal is the governor's top priority. But he's not going to get it done just by reminding voters of what it costs to get a front-end alignment.

There are serious questions and significant flaws in the measure that must be addressed.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

(313)222-2064

Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.

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