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Denying Michigan the drama of a deadline budget showdown — and also bowing to reality that a deal was impossible — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders will strive to pass a budget by Oct. 1 that doesn't include a grand bargain for funding desperately needed road work.

It's disappointing. But road negotiations were going nowhere. Though the Senate and governor were making progress, proposals to raise revenue bogged hopelessly in the House.

Liberal Democrats only wanted to talk about soak-the-rich schemes, and conservative Republicans remain convinced there's a couple billion dollars hiding elsewhere in state coffers that could be tapped.

The dynamic wasn't going to change before the Oct. 1 budget deadline, and is not likely to afterward.

So talk has turned to punting the problem to voters.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, suggested to reporters Wednesday he might be open to raising the sales tax to fund road work, a solution that would require passage of a ballot measure.

A one-cent hike in the 6-cent sales tax would raise $800 million to $900 million. Two cents would get close to the $1.9 billion Whitmer proposed for roads.

But Michigan voters have only once agreed to raise taxes on themselves -- in 1994, when they approved Prop A, which lifted the sales tax by two cents in exchange for cutting property taxes in half.

No matter what they tell pollsters about their priorities, residents have proved dead set against higher taxes to fix roads. In 2015, they defeated by a 4-to-1 margin a measure that would have increased the fuel tax by 15 cents a gallon, one-third of what Whitmer now seeks.

If a reasonable solution is going to come from the ballot, it has to be crafted in Prop A style. In other words, voters have to get something in return.

One idea is to remove the sales tax on fuel, which voters find onerous, but generates $600 million for schools. Give that money back to motorists and replace it with the general fund dollars that are currently going to roads.

Cuts could also be made in vehicle registration fees or other levies to make voters feel whole.

Remember, though, that getting Prop A passed required a gutsy step by then-Gov. John Engler and the Legislature. They first passed a bill to replace property taxes with a broad income tax hike that would have taken effect if Prop A failed.

A legislative alternative that gives voters a choice to raise the sales tax or default to Whitmer's 45-cent fuel tax hike is an essential ingredient.

Giving House members, who are the only ones who will face voters next year, a means of bypassing a vote on a hugely unpopular fuel tax increase may move recalcitrant Republicans.

And it would perhaps head-off a more destructive push by Democrats for a graduated income tax. Progress Michigan, a Democratic front group, has filed paperwork for an unspecified ballot drive suspected to be tied to a progressive income tax, and labor leaders are touting the canard that taxing the rich is the painless way to fix roads.

Prop A was a brilliant solution to an intractable problem. Dust it off. 

nfinley@detroitnews.com 

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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