The Michigan system of circumventing voter approval from the basic process of collecting petition signatures for a ballot proposal surely is overdue in needing major reforms.
Under the current system, a group of well-intentioned activists can spend months collecting hundreds of thousands of voters’ signatures to change Michigan law. But, under this public-driven initiative process, these proposals go first to the state Legislature for an opportunity at approval. The issues at stake can include everything from legalizing marijuana to hunting wolves.
The process established by the 1963 Michigan Constitution allows lawmakers to remove an item from the November ballot by approving them in advance, with special provisions that allow the House and Senate to substantially alter the intent of a petition drive.
Under current rules, ballot initiatives that pass on Election Day – mostly state constitutional amendments — require a subsequent three-fourths vote in the Capitol to amend or repeal. But initiative petitions enacted by the Legislature prior to a public vote only require a simple majority by the House and Senate to implement substantial revisions – or full repeal. The lawmakers are in charge, not the voters.
The ’63 Constitutional Convention also opened the door to election year political games by legislators, as we have seen in recent days. The successful petition drive calling for legalization of recreational marijuana usage in Michigan was eyed for circumvention by dozens of House and Senate Republicans. The GOP was so concerned about a big Democratic voter turnout in November in favor of legalized pot that numerous conservative Republicans in the Legislature were ready to hold their noses and vote for the initiative, simply as a way of keeping it from becoming a major election issue.
In the end, the GOP votes in the Capitol fell short and the petition-driven ballot proposal will be up for voter approval in the fall. But surely, the ’63 Framers of the new state constitution never imagined a hyper-partisan world in which legislators might approve an initiative that they genuinely oppose just to influence voter turnout in the November general election.
Zach Gorchow, a reporter for the Lansing-based Gongwer News Service, pointed in a 2015 blog that conservative GOP legislators have been using the voter-initiated process of enacting new laws to bypass a veto from moderate Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Most petition drives include heavy involvement and funding from special interest groups.
In the past, the use of (this) process was relatively rare. Now, it’s frequent — laws barring insurance plans from covering abortions without a separate rider and assuring wolf hunting were enacted this way, and a prevailing wage repeal could happen as well. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Snyder’s continued veto threats of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act could prompt another petition drive on that topic.
The process allows a group to put a law before the Legislature if it can gather a minimum of signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the total vote for governor in the last gubernatorial election.
… Democracy in action, right? A mechanism to allow the people to work directly with their elected representatives to pass a law over the governor’s opposition, right?
No. Over the past decade, the ’63 Constitution’s provisions have been exploited by lawmakers to bend the impact of a petition-drive ballot proposal into whatever a bare majority of legislators decide would be best.
Worse yet, the ’63 Constitutional Framers decision to block multi-million dollar budget bills from voter approval has been distorted beyond any protective measures that were envisioned 56 years ago. The Constitution wisely says that spending bills cannot be subject to voter approval. But the subversion of that provision has resulted in lawmakers attaching small appropriations to unrelated controversial measures. That strategic spending provision makes them immune from a future ballot proposal – a citizens referendum – that could challenge their validity.
Earlier today, the GOP Legislature took a two-pronged approach to eliminate the state’s prevailing wage law for construction workers. An anti-union petition drive succeeded in collecting enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. Instead, the House and Senate ignored the upcoming statewide vote and agreed to approve the ban and to attach a $75 million appropriation to the measure to make it referendum-proof. Both strategies were designed to block a decision on the issue by state voters.
Meanwhile, some Lansing lawmakers are calling for an end to this nonsense. But a change in the citizen initiative and referendum process would require a constitutional amendment, which could lead to a constitutional convention, which could result in a full-blown, short-sighted political battle between partisan Democrats and Republicans.
The ’63 Framers may have made some mistakes, but it was only because six decades ago state politics was not such a cut-throat business based on party loyalties, rather than good public policy.