State - Lansing Tea Time Tea party activists tap into Mich. anti-tax spirit

By Kathy Barks Hoffman

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- When conservative activists slipped onto the Capitol grounds on a snowy night last winter to build snowmen holding signs warning against big government, they were drawing on a renegade spirit that has flourished in Michigan for decades.

More than ever, the protesters now have a specific focal point for their efforts: proposed tax increases to help defray Michigan's severe budget shortfalls.

That cause has helped make the national tea party movement and related groups here more animated and organized than their counterparts in states where tea party members are unsure whether to become involved in the 2010 political campaigns and debates or to remain on the sidelines.

Michigan faces a $1.7 billion deficit in the budget year that starts Oct. 1. Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed raising money by extending the state sales tax to services, while trimming the rate and lowering business taxes.

Tea party-linked groups are determined to stop the plan -- and the snowmen were only the beginning.

More than 50 groups have formed in Michigan to fight against big government so far. Most are tied to the tea party movement that arose last year, when disgruntled citizens across the nation began holding rallies to protest federal spending, taxes and what they saw as expanding government power.

In Michigan, already home to others deeply suspicious of government, from survivalists to tax refusers, tea party offshoots have cropped up, from the Conservative Caucus of Monroe County in the southeast corner of the state to Americans for Constitutional Enforcement in the Upper Peninsula community of Iron Mountain.

Most don't have much money, although Common Sense in Government leader Wendy Day says her group takes in about $5,000 a month from supporters. But most have held frequent demonstrations, media events and call-your-officeholder campaigns to keep their issues before the public.

Recently, Common Sense in Government members showed up in Sesame Street costumes for an education spending protest at the Michigan Education Association's regional headquarters in Gobles. Two weeks ago, demonstrators rallied at the Capitol on a measure related to the federal health care plan. Groups communicate and coordinate actively through Facebook and Twitter.

"For the most part, I think government has way too much money right now, and they don't spend it well," says Day, a 37-year-old mother of four and Republican school board member from Howell. "We have set up a system that's unsustainable."

Some Democrats acknowledge that the tea party efforts have hampered their chances of rounding up support for new revenue.

"It's always a gut-clutching concern when you've got lots of people out there hollering about ... taxes and there isn't the counter punch from the people who say they did exactly what they needed to do," says Democratic state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, who's running for governor.

The anti-tax groups here are tapping into a sea of anxious residents who have watched 825,000 jobs disappear over the past decade, including nearly 385,000 in the past two years alone. Meanwhile, state government operations shut down for short periods in recent years as lawmakers knocked heads over how to deal with budget-busting deficits.

In February, with tea party members fanning the opposition, voters turned down proposed property tax increases in the city of Troy and the Berkley school district, both in Oakland County just north of Detroit. A similar tax hike in the nearby wealthy area of Bloomfield Township passed by a narrow margin.

At the moment, the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House are showing little appetite for taking up Granholm's tax proposal, even though Michigan's inflation-adjusted general fund revenue is down to levels not seen since the 1960s. Michigan also risks losing $500 million in federal funds next year for roads and bridges if lawmakers don't raise the state gasoline tax enough to provide the state matching funds.

Stan Kasiewicz, a 69-year-old semiretired Bloomfield Hills businessman, says he thinks the anti-tax message is getting through.

"If you look at some of the actions of the Michigan Legislature, they have finally been having a more fiscally responsible position," he says.

Michigan has always had a share of anti-tax activists, from Republican religious and fiscal conservatives on the state's Lake Michigan side to socially conservative Democrats in Macomb County north of Detroit who backed Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

But the tea party movement seems to be providing a new rallying point. An April 15 tax protest outside the Capitol drew only 500 people in 2007, but by 2009 the number was up to 4,000.

Published: Tue, Apr 6, 2010

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