Tax Vote Trouble

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- If the state Legislature finally acts on a proposal to raise taxes in Michigan, it could be the most pressure-packed vote ever faced by some of the lawmakers now at the Capitol.
A few Republicans and Democrats in vulnerable seats could face recall efforts if they vote in favor of a tax increase. And lawmakers from both parties worry about the consequences in their districts no matter which way they vote on the yet-to-be-specified but widely anticipated tax proposal. It's expected to originate in the Democrat-controlled House.
The behind-the-scenes pressures have surfaced off and on over the last few weeks, with sharp accusations from both political parties raising the stakes for the votes that could start as early as this week.
Lawmakers most likely will have to decide whether to raise the state's personal income tax as part of the plan to eliminate a potential $1.6 billion deficit in the fiscal year that starts in October.
But some legislators who support the tax hike could end up in the crosshairs of former state lawmaker Leon Drolet, a Republican who served in the House for six years and is now a Macomb County commissioner and leader of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. He travels with a half-ton, hardened foam pig named Mr. Perks to rally opposition.
"I will have the resources to put some heads on the wall," Drolet said. "We will end the careers of some of those people who vote for a tax increase."
Drolet said more than 400 individuals have sent his group financial contributions. He figures it would take more than $50,000 to set up a recall election in a House district and more than $100,000 for a Senate seat.
Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm says the recall talk is counterproductive. Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer has vowed to fight fire with fire, saying he will try to recall Drolet if the Macomb commissioner follows through.
"If they go after our people, we will respond in kind," Brewer said.
The tactics aren't much different than those used at other times in Michigan history when a potentially large general tax increase proposal was on the horizon, said Bill Rustem, president of Lansing think tank Public Sector Consultants.
"It's standard business," Rustem said. "Everybody wants to blame everybody else. These kinds of tactics are always used."
But the vast majority of Michigan's current lawmakers have never dealt with a possible tax increase proposal of this scale. The last big general tax increase came when the income tax was raised in the early 1980s.
"Nobody likes to raise taxes. Nobody really looks forward to paying taxes," said Rep. Richard Ball, a Republican from Laingsburg. "But without revenue, there's no services. And all of us count on a number of services from the state."
Ball has said he would consider voting to raise revenues if "significant" restructuring and cost-cutting are part of the state's budget-balancing plan. The longtime optometrist turned lawmaker says that's just a common sense approach to dealing with the state's fiscal issues.
But just voicing that opinion earned his district a visit from Drolet.
Drolet also visited the district of Rep. Marc Corriveau, a Northville Democrat who narrowly won a House seat last November, in connection with a Democratic plan to raise landfill dumping fees in the state. Drolet likely will target more districts this summer.
Ball and Corriveau say they aren't rattled by Drolet's threats. Ball notes Drolet has spent much of his adult life in taxpayer-supported jobs, and Corriveau calls him a shill for special interests. But Drolet says some lawmakers have been concerned about the recall threat, calling to ask that he back off or to tell him that they won't support a tax increase.
Lawmakers remember 1983, when two Democratic state senators were recalled after voting for an income tax increase. It cost Democrats the Senate majority and Republicans have had the edge in that chamber ever since.
Brewer said the recall threats are an attempt to undo last year's election, when Democrats took control of the state House for the first time since the late 1990s.
Democrats hold a 58-52 edge in the House. If all Democratic members voted for a tax increase, no Republican votes would be needed to pass the measure in that chamber. But if they can line up some Republican votes, Democrats may be able to protect some of their more vulnerable members who don't want to vote for a tax increase headed into the 2008 elections.
The GOP may not be eager to help their colleagues across the aisle, however. A few House Republicans say Democrats have used unethical tactics to try and influence the potential vote, threatening to cut funding to specific universities and schools if certain GOP lawmakers don't support a tax hike.
Democrats say they haven't done anything unethical and counter that Republicans are obstructing efforts to safeguard the state's future by spending more on education and other government programs.
Rep. Matt Gillard, a Democrat from Alpena, has been accused of telling a handful of GOP lawmakers that universities or schools in their districts could be singled out for budget cuts if they don't support a tax increase.
"That is without precedent and it needs to be stopped, for the health of the institution," said Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, a Republican from Bellaire.
Gillard has said Republicans are being hypocritical and that his message has been consistent: Michigan's budget crisis threatens all lawmakers' districts and any institution reliant on state aid.
The squabbling is another sign of stress headed into the expected tax vote.
Granholm, who for months has said a tax increase is needed to balance the budget, is growing frustrated with lack of action in the Legislature.
"I expect that we will be shortly indicating that we have an understanding of how we're going to push forward," Granholm said.

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