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Lack of trust may doom Proposal 1

May 4, 2015

Tomorrow, Michigan voters, some of them at least, will go to the polls and decide whether to raise our sales tax from six to seven percent, mainly to fix the roads. Polls show voters badly want the roads fixed, and know this will cost money. But if the polls are correct, Proposal One will also go down to an overwhelming defeat.

I got a strong taste of why last week, when I moderated one of Michigan Radio’s “Issues and Ale” public forums, this one at a charming pub called Brewery Becker in Brighton. Most of the discussion centered on Michigan’s roads and bridges and how bad they were.

So far as I could tell, just about everyone agreed we need to spend far more on roads. But the majority of the audience seemed ready to reject Proposal One.

Why? 

They just do not trust their government. Several people asked, “If we vote for this, how do we know they won’t just steal the money and use it for something else?’

Many of them remember, or have heard about the promises made when the original Michigan lottery was passed in the early 1970s.  The voters were told that the profits would go for education. That was a key factor in getting voters to approve legalized gambling.

But while the lottery proceeds did indeed go to education, the lawmakers took away the money they had been spending on education and used it for other things. That still rankles people, some of whom weren’t even alive at the time.

On top of that, there is a firm belief on the part of many that MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, uses substandard methods and materials to fix the roads, which is why they now all seem to be falling apart. Some think they do this out of incompetence. Others believe they do it deliberately.

When I have talked to experts at MDOT, they strongly deny it. They say that our roads suffer from a harsh climate and heavy trucks, and that they have to fix roads in a variety of ways depending on local conditions.

But while that may be true, the problem is that people don’t believe them. People also seem to think that if they reject Proposal One, the lawmakers will get serious and quickly pass bills that will restore the roads. There is, however, no reason to think this is true. The legislature last year repeatedly refused to raise money to fix the roads.

Since then, there’s been an election that sent a higher proportion of lawmakers to Lansing who oppose to any new taxes, period. When it comes to making policy, many of them seem strong believers in not letting facts get in the way of their theories.

On top of this, every expert I talk to thinks Governor Snyder has done a terrible job selling this proposal to the voters. While he seems to be out there daily with a hard hat, scooping asphalt, it’s pretty clear many voters still don’t understand Proposal One.

What they do understand is that they don’t trust lawmakers of either party to do what they say. If Proposal One does fail, that, not the roads, may be our biggest problem of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.