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What happened with Proposal 1 and why?

May 6, 2015

When the magnitude of Proposal One’s defeat became clear, I called Denise Donahue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan.  Her members know better than anyone how bad our state and local roads are.

“We are absolutely crushed by what has happened tonight,” she told me.  While her group cannot officially campaign, it was clear where they stood.  You’d have a hard time finding a single road commissioner who didn’t think this proposal needed to pass.

But they failed to persuade the people.

“I think the public has been pretty clear that they want the roads fixed, and are willing to pay for that,” she said. But she told me she found that Proposal One “was just such a difficult proposal to sell."

“Everyone gets that our roads are in terrible shape. But we were unable to address the unfounded charges about special interests” who stood to benefit from this amendment, she told me. In the last two days before the vote, Donahue herself talked to audiences from Monroe County to Mackinac Island before returning home to DeWitt, near Lansing.

From the vibrations she got from citizens, she feels people were miffed that the legislature didn’t do its job.

She thinks people resented having to vote on this at all; in a representative democracy, finding ways to raise revenue is, after all, what lawmakers are supposed to do.

Even so, she thinks the public might have voted in favor of a “clean” bill, meaning one  easy to understand that would have devoted all new revenue to the roads.

But that’s not what Proposal One was.

Last night Governor Snyder issued a statement that was probably drafted before the polls closed.

“While voters didn’t support this particular proposal, we know they want action taken to maintain and improve our roads and bridges. The relentless part of relentless positive action means that we start anew to find a comprehensive, long-term solution … doing nothing isn’t an option.”

That sounds logical, but doing nothing is precisely what we have been doing for years. Viewed from a purely political standpoint, there are two remarkable things about yesterday’s vote. First, the vast majority of the top leaders in this state urged a yes vote on Proposal One.

Not only Snyder, but former Senator Carl Levin.  John Dingell. Former legislative leaders Jase Bolger, Randy Richardville and Gretchen Whitmer.

Yet Proposal One lost four to one –the worst defeat for any proposal in more than half a century. The voters couldn’t care less what some of the state’s most revered figures thought.

But while there will be further attempts to fix the roads, there may be a permanent casualty of this election: Rick Snyder’s national political future. Snyder seems to have been flirting with a run for President. Yet consider this.

After years of failing to get his fellow Republicans in the legislature to fix the roads, the governor threw himself into an expensive, high-stakes campaign to get the people to raise the sales tax to do so.
The result isn’t exactly an impressive accomplishment to take to the country. Bizarrely, a new poll yesterday showed the governor more popular than ever in Michigan. Politically, it seems that’s where he seems destined to stay.

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.