Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

August 14, 2010

Analysis: Voters overwhelmingly pass tax levies

Faced with choices between fixing roads or paying less in taxes, Michigan voters overwhelmingly opted for smoother streets in the Aug. 3 election. They also opened their wallets for fire and police departments, for senior citizens and libraries.

Across the state, voters approved 86 percent of the 623 ballot proposals affecting how much they would pay in taxes or, in a few cases, fees, according to a Center for Michigan analysis. They OK'd 96 percent of the requests to either renew taxes or restore rates that had been reduced by the Headlee amendment in the Michigan Constitution.

And perhaps most surprising: They supported 69 percent of the proposals that were flat-out tax increases.

"The findings are pretty stunning," said Tom Ivacko, manager of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan. "My guess is people are starting to really feel the effect of government cutbacks." Douglas Roberts, director of the Michigan State University Institute of Public Policy and Social Research, agreed that the support of tax proposals was surprisingly strong. "Looking at this data, it certainly indicates that at the moment, there doesn't seem to be a tax revolt." There were no statewide ballot proposals in the primary election, but hundreds of cash-strapped counties, cities, townships, villages, schools, and libraries asked voters for money. The outcomes are especially impressive coming against a backdrop of high unemployment, shrinking incomes and plunging home values.

The state does not compile data on the local ballot proposals, as Roberts learned when he was Michigan's state treasurer. The Center for Michigan analyzed results from county and local websites as well as media reports to compile unofficial results.

Among the key findings:

In the vast majority of cases, local governments earmarked the money for specific uses, rather than general operations. The most common requests came for roads and fire departments. In several cases they asked for money to combat mosquitoes.

Voters said yes, yes and yes to proposals supporting senior citizens. All 45 senior-related ballot initiatives were approved.

Voters driving to the polls seem to have noticed their roads are falling apart. Some 85 percent of the requests to fix roads passed.

Ninety-four percent of proposals to support firefighters passed.

Local governments have been slammed in recent years by the one-two punch of reduced state aid and, more recently, declining property tax revenue resulting from lower housing values and the foreclosure crisis. The state of Michigan has slashed revenue-sharing to cities, townships and villages by nearly $390 million since fiscal 2001, a 29 percent reduction, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency.

Local officials have had to take a variety of steps to keep the books balanced. Some have reduced personnel costs by layoffs, unpaid furlough days or leaving positions vacant. Some have closed offices on Fridays. Others are paving fewer roads, closing fire stations, plowing snow less often, or cutting back on parks maintenance.

The voters may be coming to understand that they will pay one way or another, CLOSUP's Ivacko said. If cuts go too far in fire protection, people will pay more on their home insurance. If the roads are crumbling, their cars may end up in the shop.

"The low-hanging fruit were gone a long time ago," he said. "These are the services that people see. These are things that hit people pretty squarely in the face." Roberts said the success of local governments in enacting millages was even more impressive in a primary election, when voter turnout is much lower than in general elections. Voters who are stirred up — for instance, angry about taxes — are more motivated to show up.

"The locals may have done a whole lot better job of selling it, and the compliments should go to the groups that are in effect going to the public and saying, 'This is what we are using it (tax money) for. We want you to think about it, and we think it's a good use of your funds,'" he said.

Selective Services: In 95 percent of the proposals, local officials chose to target the money they were requesting for specific purposes. Voters were more skeptical when they didn't know how it would be spent.

A smaller percentage — but still 68 percent — of the general operations proposals passed. Four of seven tax increases for general operations were approved.

Ivacko noted that media reports on pay and benefits for public sector employees have raised concerns about how tax dollars are used. "My guess is most citizens are not interested in raising their taxes if that's what the money is going to go for," he said. "So if it was simply a general operating millage that wasn't earmarked for some specific service, there will be significantly less support among the public." Here is a look at how ballot measures for specific purposes fared.

Fighting Fire with Taxes All proposals: 94 percent of 131 passed Tax increases: 82 percent of 40 passed Renewals or Headlee proposals: 99 percent of 91 pass It's safe to say that if their houses catches on fire, voters would like someone to come in a hurry with hoses. They resoundingly approved tax measures to support fire departments, including 82 percent of the tax increases.

Fire services were the most commonly requested tax proposals — 131 for fire services, 12 for fire and emergency services and 11 for fire and police services combined. David Bertram, legislative liaison for the Michigan Townships Association, said residents realize that in some cases, fire departments may shut down without the tax support requested in the ballot proposals.

Voters were less likely to support proposals splitting additional revenue between police and fire. They OK'd all six renewals but turned down three of five increases.

Fixing the Roads All proposals: 85 percent of 136 requests pass Tax increases: 60 percent of 48 requests pass Renewals or Headlee rollbacks: 98 percent of 88 requests pass Next to requests for fire services support, local governments went to the voters most often seeking money for roads. Voters overwhelmingly said yes.

Charles Ballard, an MSU economist, understands why. Voters can see easily enough their roads are falling apart. He noted that Mount Hope Road, a well-traveled road on the southern edge of the MSU campus, is so bad, "I just hope that when I hit those potholes they are not bad enough to activate my airbag." Bertram, of the townships association, said he has been telling legislators for years that when they cut revenue-sharing money to local governments, it diminishes their ability to maintain the streets. "We are 50th in the nation in getting money for roads from state and local resources. We're dead last," he said. "This is a symptom of that." Supporting the Seniors Total proposals: 100 percent of 45 requests pass Tax increases: 100 percent of 12 requests pass Renewals or Headlee rollbacks: 100 percent of 33 requests pass Arguably the most striking finding of the Center for Michigan analysis is this: In every case, voters supported tax proposals to support senior citizens.

"It's fascinating that 100 percent would pass. This is a lot of proposals," said Roberts of MSU's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

Part of the explanation no doubt is the relatively high percentage of seniors who cast ballots. But Ballard, said it is also consistent with other public policies, such as Social Security, Medicare and state income tax laws, all of which treat senior citizens favorably.

"There is a lot of political support for seniors, not just from the seniors themselves, but from throughout the population," he said. "I think that's because a lot of people think I'm not old now, but I'd like to be old someday. I'd like to find out what it's like to be old." Levies for libraries Total proposals: 87 percent of 38 requests pass Tax increases: 77 percent of 22 requests pass Renewals or Headlee rollbacks: 100 percent of 16 requests pass One might expect libraries to fit into the "nice but not necessary" category of taxpayer priorities in tight times, but voters approved every renewal request and the vast majority of proposals raising taxes.

Bertram said the results are yet another example of how cuts in funding are having impacts that citizens can easily see.

"People realize libraries are going to close, fire departments are going to shut down, and local services they desire and want are going to be shut off if these things don't pass," he said. "I don't think anyone is wanting to pay more in taxes. I think it has everything to do with residents feeling boxed in." Trusting the Locals Some of the success in local ballot initiatives is a testament to the confidence that people have in their local governments.

Ballard, the MSU economist, conducts Michigan State University's State of the State surveys to measure the mood of Michigan residents. Voters typically have more confidence in local government than state government, and more confidence in state government than the federal government. About 39 percent said they trust local government most of the time — not great, but more than twice the confidence in state and federal government.

In the past few years, voters have become fed up with state government as leaders have been unable to resolve budget issues, typically in an atmosphere of partisan bickering. Less than 16 percent trusted state government most of the time in the most recent survey.

"The big story in the last couple of surveys is that trust in local government remains about where it was, while trust in state government has just plummeted," he said. "If there were statewide ballot proposals, I don't know how they'd do."

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