Who Is Campaigning on East Lansing’s Income Tax Vote?

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018, 8:33 pm
Chris Root

Note: This article was updated after the "no" campaign mailer was received on July 18, 2018.

In less than three weeks – on August 7 – East Lansing voters will decide whether to approve a proposal for a city income tax. The “vote yes” campaign is organizing a larger campaign than last November when a different income tax proposal went to the ballot, while the “vote no” campaign has not taken much action.

ELi has been watching for political mailers, for people showing up at our doors, and at social media to report this story about campaigning on the ballot question. I also spent about two hours driving through several neighborhoods looking for “yes” and “no” yard signs.

For background, the ballot question asks whether to “authorize an excise tax on income for 12 years commencing January 1, 2019” with “net income tax revenue to be dedicated as follows: 20% to police and fire protection; 20% to the maintenance and improvement of streets and sidewalks, water and sewer systems, and parks, and recreation, and city-owned facilities; and, 60% to supplemental payments for unfunded pension liabilities for retired city employees.” If the income tax is enacted, the property tax will be reduced by 5 mills, also.

For more information about the ballot question itself, ELi has published a nonpartisan Voter Guide. (The City of East Lansing has created an informational webpage.)

The “Yes” campaign:

Two committees that support the income tax ballot question have filed required forms with the Ingham County Clerk: the “Committee to Protect East Lansing’s Future” (referred to here as the “Yes” committee) and “’Yes’ for Safety.”

The basic message of the “Yes” committee (from the About page of its website) is this: “The solution to our fiscal crisis is cuts, reform, and revenue. That’s why the city has already cut millions in spending and reformed the pension system. But the city needs new revenue to avoid deeper cuts that no one wants.” (All of the links here, included in the original statement, point to City of East Lansing pages.)

This position reflects decisions the City Council made after voters rejected an income tax proposal last November, namely to make budget cuts before asking residents for addition tax income. The Council cut about $1 million from the Fiscal Year 2019 budget (which started July 1) and projected approximately another $2 million in cuts in FY 2020 and 2021 that will need to be made if the August income tax proposal is rejected by a majority of voters.

Two mailers from the “Yes” committee arrived in my mail on June 21 and June 26. This was just before the East Lansing City Clerk sent out the first big batch of absentee ballots the first week of July.

The first “yes” mailer (shown below) focused on the income tax’s benefit to retired homeowners, many of whom would be expected to see a reduction in their overall tax bill. It also focused on the expansion of the City’s tax base to include people who live outside the city and commute to work here. (ELi ran an earlier story about this mailing.)

The second “vote yes” mailer highlighted the role of East Lansing’s specially-appointed Financial Health Team in devising the income tax, saying, “The Financial Health Team developed a plan. Community input refined it.”

The mailer prominently quotes the Team’s chair, Michael Moquin: “East Lansing has reformed its pension system and made deep cuts to spending. Now it needs new revenue. We recommended property tax relief and an income tax to generate new revenue from nonresident workers. The city is following our plan.”

Compared to the “Yes” committee’s campaign in 2017, which relied heavily on members of Council going door-to-door, their 2018 effort is involving more people in the community. For example, the “Yes” committee had 217 endorsers when I accessed it on July 14. Endorsers include eight of the ten members of the Financial Health Team, presidents of seven neighborhood associations, and members of many City Boards and Commissions.

The “Yes” committee has also recruited volunteers to go door-to-door through neighborhoods for seven weekends from June 23 until the election. Council Member Shanna Draheim told ELi that about 20 volunteers are “distributing signs, making phone calls, knocking doors, providing input on messaging, and talking with family and friends about the proposal.“

Nancy Schertzing, a co-chair of the “Yes” committee who lives in the Bailey neighborhood, said she did not get involved in the campaign for the income tax proposal in 2017 but was putting in effort this time around, including as one of the organizers of an event at Harper’s Brewpub on the evening of July 18. This event is intended to show support both for the income tax and for downtown businesses during the major construction disruption.

Schertzing told me she saw the “Yes” committee was an example of “good government in action,” adding that she felt the 2016 election showed “how important every vote is.”

Co-chair Gary Beaudoin, from the Whitehills neighborhood and a member of the Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission, is putting in volunteer time making phone calls to likely voters to talk about the provisions of the income tax ballot question and their concerns about it.

Four other volunteers sent a letter to some East Lansing voters explaining the provisions of the income tax and urging a “yes” vote. The letter was signed by Patty and George Brookover, who live in the Glencairn neighborhood, and Liz and John Schweitzer, who live in the Red Cedar neighborhood. Liz Schweitzer was Mayor of East Lansing from 1989 to 1993.

Under the name “’Yes’ for Safety,” East Lansing’s firefighters’ union is also campaigning in favor of the income tax, going door-to-door with literature that advocates for “the time-limited, earmarked income tax” as shown in part above. John Newman, President of the Firefighters Local 1609, was knocking on doors in early July, telling residents that voting for the income tax will prevent future budget cuts to the fire department, beyond those already made in the FY 2019 budget.

Members of the firefighters union went door-to-door just before the November 2017 election, as well, but their literature that time asked voters to “Vote Yes on 1” and did not mention the income tax. For the large proportion of residents who live in Ingham County, question #1 on their ballot was an increase in the millage for the county, not the East Lansing ballot questions. This caused confusion for some voters, and the literature was also found in violation of campaign finance law.

“We’ve learned a lot since the last election,” Newman said, referring not only to the clearer message in their literature but also to getting out into neighborhoods earlier so they would be able to talk to more people. This time, they have also formed a ballot committee and filed the required paperwork with the Ingham County Clerk.

The “No” campaign:

“Citizens for East Lansing's Future” (referred to here as the “No” committee) is opposed to the income tax ballot question.

The “No” committee ran a big, expensive campaign against the income tax question that was on the November 2017 ballot. When this vote failed and the Council moved to consider placing a new version of an income tax on the August 2018 ballot, the “No” committee urged the Council not to do so.

An unsigned letter from the “No” committee to City Council members on February 28, 2018, said, “we believe [the City’s financial stress] is partly attributable to external factors – but also substantially due to inaction by city officials, who for too long have kicked the can down the road instead of making tough choices.”

The letter went on: “We believe the city must demonstrate action on reforms first – before asking residents to pay even more in taxes.”

The first item in their attached list of recommendations was “Reconvene the East Lansing Financial Health Review Team … [and] have the team provide recommendations for reforms to the city’s pension plan and other post-employment benefits (OPEB) that do not incorporate revenue options.”

The “No” committee posted on Facebook once in each of the first three months of 2018 that the City should enact reforms and tighten their own belts before raising taxes. No posts have appeared on their Facebook page since March 5.

While working on this article, I was informed by Don Power, who is part of the “No” committee and worked actively on that campaign in 2017, that a mailing against the August 7 income tax question was in the works. That mailer was received by some voters on July 18. The front and back of the mailer are shown here.

ELi has reached out several times to people in the “No” committee to ask for comments from a spokesperson, but we have received no reply. So, we do not have any information about why there has been little activity so far from the committee that last year spent $50,960 in a campaign to defeat an income tax of indefinite duration. Because they would not answer questions from us, we also cannot report what the "No" committee means when it calls for "substantive budget reforms" and "tough decisions."

ELi explains it its nonpartisan voter guide how this year's tax proposal differs from last year's. We have reported what cuts have been made to the buget so far and what can be expected if the income tax does not pass. We've also reported extensively on City Council's responses to the Financial Health Team's recommendations on pensions.

Where the campaigns stand:

In a small city like East Lansing, yard signs are sometimes regarded as evidence of how serious a campaign a candidate or group is mounting. The number of signs definitely is not a substitute for a survey of voters, but it gives some sense of the effort and resources that have gone into the campaigns thus far.

I drove through four neighborhoods on Saturday, July 14, to count “yes” and “no” signs. This was not at all a comprehensive count. However, it gives some indication of activity by the two sides. Here is what I found:

  • in Pinecrest, 17 yes signs and 3 no signs;
  • in Hawk Nest, 6 yes, 1 no;
  • in Whitehills, 9 yes, 1 no;
  • in Bailey, 22 yes, 1 no.

I have also walked in Glencairn on several occasions and seen at least 10 yes signs and 2 no signs. In short, yes signs are out-stripping no signs in all areas I have checked.

In 2017, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon strongly opposed an East Lansing income tax. Simon negotiated at length with Mayor Mark Meadows over a possible payment by MSU to the City in lieu of the City imposing an income tax. That negotiation did not lead to a deal between City Council and the MSU Board of Trustees.

This time around, MSU Interim President John Engler has not spoken publicly about the revised income tax proposal. Because MSU is the major employer in East Lansing, many of whose employees would be affected by the commuter income tax, Engler’s silence so far is a source of uncertainty.

The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce was a big player on the “No” side in 2017, contributing about 63% of the total of more than $50,000 brought in by the No committee. The Chamber also spent heavily at the end of East Lansing’s City Council elections in 2015, so there is no way of knowing what will happen in the few remaining weeks of campaigning on the August 7, 2018, income tax vote.


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