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Backers of a ballot proposal to raise the state sales tax to fix roads believe they have found a path to passage.

It is admittedly narrow. But after interviewing voters and conferring with campaign strategists, they think the message that will push this over the top is "Safer Roads — Guaranteed!"

The message that Michigan's highways are disintegrating didn't resonate with focus groups, but calling them dangerous did — as long as it was coupled with a guarantee that all road taxes will go to fix the roads.

The promise is aimed at countering long-standing resentment that the sales tax on fuel is siphoned off to pay for education and other services. Proposal 1 on the May 5 ballot will replace the sales tax on fuel, and dedicate by law to road work all of the current fuel taxes plus $1.2 billion of the new revenue raised by the one-penny sales tax hike.

Voters may see that as a somewhat misleading warranty, since the proposal raises another roughly $800 million for schools, tax credits for low income workers and other spending. But the roads portion is locked in and indexed to inflation, and the ratio can't change.

The added money for education won't be trumpeted, but instead will be pitched through direct mail to targeted voters motivated by that issue. The general campaign will highlight the human toll of not fixing the roads.

Commercials will feature people in uniform, including police officers, bus drivers and EMS squads, telling us that bad roads kill, that dodging potholes or losing control of a vehicle after hitting one is as dangerous as driving drunk. As is driving under bridges that are dropping chunks of concrete.

A side message, also derived from the focus groups, will guarantee the quality of the work done with the new road money. Voters will be assured that contractors will pay for repairs if their work fails.

The pro-Prop 1 campaign expects to spend $10 million to $15 million. Ads against Proposal 1 began this week. At least four groups are raising money to defeat the measure.

There's another message Prop 1's backers should consider, one that might be extremely effective in moving voters who understand Michigan's roads are dismal and dangerous, but aren't crazy about how this plan is structured. That's to remind skeptics that it's this or nothing.

If Prop. 1 fails, "There is no Plan B," Gov. Rick Snyder said last week. "We go back to square one, or really to negative square one."

Those who want the money to come out of current spending are delusional. Republicans aren't going to make substantial cuts to prison spending, Democrats aren't going to hack welfare spending, and neither party is going to touch school spending.

The right way to raise road money is to increase the fuel tax, but lawmakers couldn't agree to do that in the last session, and this new Legislature is even less likely to do so. If Prop 1 fails, revenue hikes of any kind will be off the table. Proposal 1 is flawed, but it's all we got.

So the real message to voters should be this: Hold your noses and vote for Prop 1, or keep driving on what may be the deadliest roads in America. Guaranteed.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

(313)222-2064

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

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