One thing local voters don't like, it's been shown time and time again, is when politicians and organizations resort to deception, trickery or are less than honest when they attempt to gain passage of a millage or bond by placing it on an off-time election ballot likely to have lower voter turnout. But that is exactly what the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) appears to be doing by considering to put a .2- mill property tax for all Wayne, Oakland and Macomb voters on the March 2020 presidential primary ballot. The tax would raise $26 million a year.
If this millage request sounds familiar, then you probably remember casting a ballot on this very proposal in August of 2012 when the DIA won passage of what was referred to then as a “one-time” 10-year millage to allow the institute to build up reserves, the investment interest from which would cover future budget shortfalls. We won't comment at this time on whether the art institute should be coming back to voters in the tri-county area for more money, nor will we weigh in on the issue of the request for a renewal of the “one-time” tax being made two years before it expires. Our concern now is that it must not be put on an off-cycle election ballot – the Presidential Primary next March, nor for that matter on the August 2020 primary ballot when historically only about 18-20 percent of registered voters participate.
In early November, the DIA's board of directors voted to request that Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties place a renewal of the DIA's .2-mills on the March 10 ballot. DIA officials offer all sorts of reasons why they need to come back to voters for another round of money, but those are not the issue today. Our objection is the timing of this renewal vote for funding for the DIA or any entity for that matter.
Voter turnout numbers from the 2016 presidential election year show that in March of that year, only 40 percent of registered voters in Oakland County cast ballots. However, in November of that year, 71.59 per cent of registered Oakland voters cast ballots. One can only surmise that this year the November general election turnout will far surpass those showing up for a March presidential primary.
There is also legitimate concern that perhaps the DIA board is election date shopping based on when there might be more Democrats showing up to vote.
The reality is the March 10 presidential primary could likely have only Republican name on the ballot – Donald J. Trump. Although two members of the GOP have announced they will challenge Trump, one has already pulled out. On the same ballot, there will likely be several Democratic names – meaning they're banking on a heavily-Democratic electorate to turn out and vote for the museum's millage renewal, as the stereotypical thinking goes. No matter how much attention is on Michigan's primary (it's the week after the legendary Super Tuesday primary day), the reality is voter turnout will be small relative to a November general election. Some would call it a stealth election.
It would not be the first time community leaders have attempted to avoid a November election where a larger voter pool could mean the millage stands a better chance of going down. That thinking even influenced the state legislature in 2015, when it eliminated February low-turnout elections, which were sometimes used by schools to push millages or bonds.
The reality is, the DIA is a regional gem, and all voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties should have the opportunity to vote on whether they want to continue supporting it.
Oakland officials must take the lead on this issue. Insist that the DIA millage appear on a November general election ballot. Anything short of that, we'll likely recommend a “no” vote to our readership.