The opportunistic rush to slip tax votes onto Michigan’s March presidential primary ballot should trigger lawmakers to put an end to this sleazy practice.

The March 10 vote to award Michigan’s partisan delegates promises to be one of, if not the lowest, turnout election of the year.

And this year, participation is likely to skew heavily Democratic, since President Donald Trump will have no real challenger in the Republican primary.

No matter what those pushing the tax measures say about why they chose March to go to voters, there’s only one true answer: They’re trying to sneak their levies through on the path of least resistance.

“Taxing authorities are carefully choosing their voters and placing tax issues on the ballot when they expect the voters they prefer to be voting,” says Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, a former lawmaker and longtime anti-tax activist. “It’s not about seeking voter approval; its about seeking to minimize voter involvement in tax decisions.”

This spring, the tax grabbers believe the anticipated larger turnout of Democrats will skew toward those voters more sympathetic to tax hikes.

The lure of an ideal voter demographic was so strong that the Detroit Institute of Arts decided to go for a renewal of its .02-mill, 10-year levy a full two years before it expires. 

A similar motive inspired the Macomb County Intermediate School district to place on the March ballot a 1.9-mill, 20-year tax hike that would have very little chance of passing in an election with a stronger showing by Republicans.

Wayne County is seeking a new 1-mill, 5-year tax to fund after-school programs. Local communities also have the opportunity to put tax measures on the March ballot.

“This is billed as a presidential primary,” Drolet says. “But it's shaping up as Super Tax Tuesday.”

Taxes impact everyone, so if the burden is going to be increased it should be with the maximum support of taxpayers. Holding tax votes in low-turnout elections intentionally works against that goal.

In March of 2016, the Michigan presidential nominating vote, which featured competitive contests for both parties, set a record for turnout, and still just 34% of the electorate showed up at the polls. In 2012, the presidential primary turnout was 16%, and in 2008, 21%.

August primaries routinely post turnouts that struggle to eclipse 20%. The record primary vote of 2018 drew just 27% of voters.

By contrast, general election turnout in Michigan in presidential years nears two-thirds of the electorate, and in gubernatorial years ranges between 42 and 55%.

While that level of participation is nothing to brag about, it's still far higher than other elections throughout the year.

Lawmakers should put an end to stealth tax elections. Requests to raise new taxes or increase old ones should be limited to the November ballot. 

Trying to game the system by placing tax levies before a carefully screened electorate veers close to being taxation without representation. If they have worthwhile causes, backers of tax levies should not be afraid to make their cases to a broad pool of voters.

Catch Nolan Finley on “One Detroit” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.

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