By Sen. Jim Runestad
15th Senate District
Oakland County has been rated time and again as one of the best-run counties in the nation. Our industries are thriving, our schools are great and our law enforcement is the best in the business. Things aren’t perfect, but in my opinion there’s no better place in the world to live, work or raise a family.
That’s why I’m so concerned about an effort in the state Legislature right now that could undo many of the taxpayer protections made over the last 40 years.
In 1978, Michigan voters approved a change to the Michigan Constitution known as the Headlee Amendment. Headlee created commonsense limits on the ability of local governments to raise your taxes, including requiring voter approval for any local taxes, limiting property tax revenue resulting from increases in assessments, and limiting revenue collected to the amount the millage was created to generate.
House Bill 5229 would undermine 40 years of Headlee’s taxpayer protection reforms. This bill would allow politicians to create a new taxing authority, called a “joint endeavor,” that would be empowered to ask for and spend tens of billions of new taxpayer dollars on “regional” mass transit in Detroit and in Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.
The Detroit City Council and county commissions would create the “joint endeavor” and levy the tax. The taxes raised would not count against those governments’ Headlee limits. Metro Detroit politicians would control the spending and decide who gets services — but would not have to control their other spending to pay for it.
Even though this bill is targeted toward public transit in Southeast Michigan, eroding the Headlee Amendment protections could affect every single Michigan taxpayer. Once those constitutional limits on taxing and spending are eroded, it will empower big government advocates to pursue all kinds of new spending plans at the expense of the taxpayer.
The regional transit tax that was defeated in 2016 was only for 1.2 mills. It was sought under a different law, the Regional Transit Authority Act (RTA), with checks and balances in favor of taxpayers and accountable government practices.
Advocates for HB 5229 don’t like those checks and balances, so now they’re seeking to amend a different law, the Municipal Partnership Act (MPA). Under the MPA, the new “joint endeavor” could put a millage of up to 5 mills on the ballot, which translates to a massive tax increase on your property taxes every year — for decades to come.
Even though all of a county’s taxpayers would be taxed, services would likely be delivered to a much smaller geographical area. Our former county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, would have seen this scheme for what it is — another effort to tax Oakland County property owners to provide new transit options for those living in other counties.
Over the past 25 years, Oakland communities representing nearly half of the county’s taxable value have opted out of paying for transit services they would not receive. HB 5229 is an attempt to deprive them of this option. Without Brooks to defend Oakland County taxpayers, the proponents of “regional transit for some, paid for by all,” are going for broke.
Taxpayers cannot afford to let politicians change the rules. A transit plan should work for all participating communities. It should be adopted by the local communities first, and then ask only those communities receiving services to pay for it. House Bill 5229 is the wrong approach and should be rejected by our legislators on both sides of the aisle. Hardworking taxpayers in Oakland County deserve better.
This op-ed appeared in the Feb. 6, 2020 edition of The Detroit News. State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, represents Michigan’s 15th District.