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Michigan voters defeat tax increases for road work

Road construction is shown in Detroit Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Michigan voters were deciding Tuesday whether to approve higher taxes to improve the state's deteriorating roads and bridges. Proposal 1, a constitutional amendment subject to a statewide vote, would raise Michigan's 6 percent sales tax to 7 percent to trigger $1.3 billion more a year for highways, roads, bridges and public transit. Lawmakers put the measure on the ballot in December after failing to directly increase taxes themselves or to divert money from elsewhere in the budget. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan voters on Tuesday resoundingly defeated tax increases that would have pumped $1.2 billion more a year into roads, a setback for Gov. Rick Snyder and others who warn that the state’s infrastructure is falling into disrepair because of inadequate funding.

Proposal 1 was trailing by a 3-1 ratio in early returns for Oakland and Kent counties — two of the state’s largest — and by an even wider margin in many smaller counties that had finished counting.

A 1-cent sales tax hike was the centerpiece of the ballot measure, which also would have raised more money for education, local governments, and public transit and fully restored a tax break for lower-income workers.

The constitutional amendment was placed on the ballot in December by the Republican-led Legislature and had backing from the GOP governor, Democrats and a broad coalition of business, labor and government groups.

But voters rejected the wide-ranging plan. It would have eliminated the sales tax on fuel so all taxes at the pump could go to transportation, restructured and doubled fuel taxes, and hiked vehicle registration fees to boost the state’s $3.7 billion transportation budget to $5 billion, an increase of a third.

Snyder, who traveled the state to explain the plan and urge its passage, conceded that it was dead shortly after all polls closed.

“Until we get better roads, I’m not going to stop,” the potential presidential candidate told reporters. “I think you’re going to find a lot of pressure from the public to get something done. Nobody likes our roads.”

Michigan is one of the most frugal states in spending on infrastructure such as highways. And like other states and the federal government, it faces declining or stagnant fuel tax revenues as people drive less and with more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Supporters said the roads are unsafe, the worst in the county and cost car owners hundreds of dollars a year in vehicle repairs.

“It’s not perfect, but I don’t trust them to come up with anything else. The roads obviously need more money put into them,” said Brenda Foster, a 63-year-old East Lansing teacher aide who voted yes.

Opponents criticized higher taxes outright or said the measure was complex and unnecessarily would have included more taxes than necessary as part of a political deal that became about more than just repairing roads.

“They’ve been taking from us for years saying they’re going to fix the roads,” said Cheryl Mask, a 56-year-old state worker from Lansing who cast a no vote. She said the plan was confusing and the school funding piece was a “setup” to attract votes.

Construction contractors, businesses and unions poured more than $9 million into the campaign, greatly outspending conservative opposition groups that raised around $200,000.

Michigan voters last approved a net tax hike in a statewide vote in 1960.

Roughly one-fourth of states have increased transportation taxes or fees in the past two years. But results were mixed in states where voters had a say.

Missouri defeated a three-quarters cent sales tax for transportation last year, while Massachusetts repealed a provision automatically tying future increases in the gasoline tax to inflation. Though Texas voters approved using half the funds flowing annually into the rainy day fund for roads, the proposal did not increase taxes.

Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan, said the organization felt like “road kill due to an overly complex ballot proposal. … Voters have spoken: They wanted a cleaner road funding solution dedicated specifically to road and bridge repair.”

Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter said voters clearly want “a simple solution, low taxes and a focus on roads instead of other projects. … We will begin work immediately on addressing the road funding issue that still faces this state.”

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