Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
The Michigan Constitution is not akin to other state laws that the Legislature may change at will. It is the fundamental charter of our state government. It is the sacred, organic document that gives Michigan life. It can only be amended by a statewide vote of the people.
I am skeptical whenever Michigan’s legislators place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot seeking to alter the elemental rules that restrain the Legislature itself. The proposed constitutional amendment that makes up Proposal 1 would do just that.
Some legislators have been forthcoming about the structure of Proposal 1 and the ends it would accomplish. Others have not. But it is clear that both conservatives and liberals are contributing to the confusion. I have spoken widely on the topic of Proposal 1. Wherever I go, I find that the people who claim to have the best understanding of Proposal 1 are often the people who spread the most misinformation about it.
We all agree that Michigan’s roads are in bad shape. But the proposed constitutional amendment on the May 5th ballot will not fund our roads. The constitutional amendment, itself, pertains almost entirely to education funding and local revenue sharing.
We’re told that Proposal 1 would result in a slight net increase in annual School Aid Fund (SAF) revenue. However, we’re not told that most of this additional revenue would never make its way to K-12 classrooms. This is because Proposal 1, if adopted, will alter the overall nature of the SAF and will constitutionally authorize the use of SAF money for three brand new purposes including community colleges, career and technical education programs, and certain scholarships. We simply do not know how much of the additional SAF revenue might be dedicated to these new uses.
There is no binding formula in place to tell us how much SAF money will be spent on each of these programs; nor are there any past data to guide us in this calculus. What do we actually know? If Proposal 1 passes, the allocation of dollars among the five SAF uses will be left entirely to the whims and uncertainties of the legislative appropriations process. The state constitution will have nothing to say about the manner in which the SAF money is divvied up among these five areas.
Accordingly, and contrary to what you’ve heard on the television ads, it is entirely possible that Proposal 1 could lead to a decrease in aid to K-12 schools, siphoning off money that was formerly earmarked for primary and secondary education for new, untested programs.
As for the 10 public acts that are tied to the outcome of the vote, there are more questions than answers. True, two of these public acts would alter the structure of Michigan’s motor fuel tax and dedicate the resulting fuel-tax revenue to transportation purposes, including roads and bridges. But these same acts would dedicate most of the fuel-tax revenue collected during fiscal years 2016 and 2017 to debt service on certain transportation bonds. In other words, even if Proposal 1 passes, no large-scale road construction (other than patching and resurfacing) will begin until the fall of 2017.
On a more academic note, the Legislature’s decision to tie the effectiveness of the 10 public acts to the statewide vote is likely unconstitutional. The Michigan Constitution provides only one way in which the Legislature can make the effectiveness of a public act contingent on the outcome of a statewide election: It may submit a public act to a statewide vote and declare that the act will not take effect unless it is “approved by a majority of the electors voting thereon.”
It unavoidably follows that the Legislature may not submit a package of public acts to the voters en masse, tying the effectiveness of all 10 bills to the outcome of a vote on an entirely separate, proposed constitutional amendment. Yet this is exactly what the Legislature has done. Instead of submitting each act to the voters individually as required by the state constitution, the Legislature has dubiously tied the effectiveness of all 10 acts, as a single package, to the outcome of the May 5th election. The Legislature’s blatant disregard for our constitution, standing alone, gives me enough reason to vote no.
Further, if the voters approve Proposal 1, the Legislature will be perfectly free to amend or repeal any of the 10 public acts at any time. Therefore, it is completely misleading to say that Proposal 1 will “guarantee” additional revenue for Michigan’s roads. The promised road funding, which is set forth in two of the 10 public acts, would be “guaranteed” only to the same extent that any other statutory creation is “guaranteed.” That is, not at all.
And what about the tired, old argument that there is no “Plan B”? In actuality there are several “Plan Bs.“ The Legislature could simply raise the motor fuel tax without changing the sales-tax structure. Or the Legislature could revisit the idea of levying a sales and use tax on services. Perhaps Michigan could even adopt a graduated income tax. There are many options to raise revenue; our Legislature just lacks the will to do it.
Lastly, consider this fact: Proposal 1, if adopted, would actually constitutionally deprioritize the funding of primary and secondary schools. It would force primary and secondary schools to compete for funding with the three new SAF uses described above. But even less understood is the fact that, contrary to what we've heard on the television ads, the proposed constitutional amendment would not guarantee any additional sales-tax revenue for the SAF at all. In fact, the amendment would allow the Legislature to deposit less sales-tax revenue into the SAF than it does today. Whereas the Michigan Constitution currently requires the Legislature to dedicate 60 percent of all sales taxes imposed “at a rate of 4%“ to the SAF, the new constitutional text, if adopted, would require the Legislature to dedicate 60 percent of sales taxes imposed “at a rate of not more than 5%“ to the SAF. Naturally, the phrase “at a rate of not more than 5%“ would encompass a rate of 4%, 3%, 2%, 1%, or even 0%. Thus, rather than requiring the Legislature to raise the sales tax by one percent and dedicate sixty percent of the resulting additional revenue to the SAF, the new constitutional text would remove the 4% sales-tax guarantee that is presently set forth in the second sentence of Article 9, section 11, and allow the Legislature to eliminate all SAF sales-tax revenue other than that generated by the additional 2% approved by the voters in 1994.
We’re constantly bombarded with ads telling us the roads are so dangerous that Michigan’s children aren’t safe. If our roads really present an immediate safety emergency, shouldn’t the Legislature have devised a road-funding solution by now? By punting the issue to the voters, our lawmakers are attempting to avoid blame for raising taxes. They seem to have forgotten that they were sent to Lansing to do a job.
Proposal 1 is complex and difficult to understand. It would make ill-advised constitutional changes and is, itself, of questionable constitutionality. It would add uncertainty to the allocation of education money and could result in lower per-pupil foundation grants going forward. Lastly, how many of us can say that we truly trust the Legislature to allocate the dollars as promised? Trusting the Legislature to follow the constitution when money is involved is like trusting the proverbial kid in a candy store. I’m voting no, and I think you should too.