Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Michigan constitution is quickly becoming obsolete

DETROIT — Two years ago, Michigan voters were asked whether they wanted to call a convention to write a new state constitution.

Pretty much every political leader thought that was a bad idea. Voters turned it down by a two-to-one margin.

But it’s beginning to look as if the voters blew it.

Michigan’s 49-year-old constitution is fast spinning into irrelevance, thanks to a deeply flawed process that allows any self-serving interest group or billionaire to pay to collect enough signatures and slap a proposed amendment on the ballot.

Since voters narrowly adopted the state's present constitution in April, 1963, the document has been amended more than 30 times.

During the same period, there have been only four amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

This November alone, Michigan voters will be asked to decide on another five proposed state constitutional amendments.

That’s too many to expect voters to analyze. Part of the problem is that there seems to be very little understanding in Michigan of what a constitution should be.

Constitutions are meant to be foundations on which structures of governments and court systems can be built. That concept is widely understood at the national level.

Take the most recent four amendments: The first, which grew out of the civil rights movement, outlawed charging voters a poll tax before allowing them to vote in a federal election.

That was followed by an amendment allowing for the replacement of a vice president who dies or leaves office, one lowering the voting age to 18, and one that says any congressional pay change can’t take effect until after the next election.

Those are all general, nonideological changes, none of which today is the least bit controversial.

But most of the five proposed state constitutional amendments on this year’s Michigan ballot are naked attempts to stuff some special interest in the constitution to protect it from reformers.

Proposal Two would protect collective bargaining, a right which you could argue should be universally protected. Proposal Three would attempt to mandate where electric utilities get their power. Imagine if the Founding Fathers had inserted mandates in 1787 for how we were supposed to heat our homes.

Proposal Four would put a registry for home health-care workers, and a bunch of union rules for them, in the constitution.

Proposal Six, perhaps the most outrageous, is designed to protect the owner of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit from competition, by forbidding the state to build any new international crossings, ever, without an expensive statewide vote of the people.

Proposal Five, which like Six was mostly bankrolled by Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, would essentially sabotage representative democracy by requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature — or a statewide referendum — for any tax increase, even in a national emergency.

If all of these are passed, they will cripple representative government as we've known it, reduce the Legislature to near-irrelevance, and turn the constitution into little more than a Christmas tree under which special interests can put presents for themselves.

Much of what's wrong with Michigan government can be traced to another state constitutional amendment passed two decades ago — term limits. Legislators can serve only eight years in the state Senate and six in the House before they are banned for life.

Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, a political science professor at Wayne State University, has studied Michigan term limits since they began. She thinks the profusion of ballot proposals is a symptom "that we do not have confidence in our elected officials to make bipartisan policy that is good for the state as a whole."

Additionally, she said, “with a million dollars, anyone — even people from outside the state — can put anything on the ballot. Some of the proposals fall into that category. But some other proposals this time reflect the frustrations of ordinary citizens with the policies coming out of Lansing.”

Michigan government, in other words, is dissolving into dysfunctionality. Unfortunately, state voters won’t be asked whether they want a new constitutional convention until 2026.

But there is something that anyone who is interested in saving the state could do: Put one more constitutional amendment on the ballot, this time requiring a million valid signatures for any further amendments.

Michigan also needs to outlaw the practice of paying people to gather signatures — and to enact stiff penalties for any canvasser who is convicted of lying to voters to get them to sign.

According to campaign finance reports, Mr. Moroun paid $4.58 million to collect signatures to get his self-serving Proposal 6 on this year’s ballot.

This summer, two of his canvassers lied to my significant other at highway rest stops.

They told her that Gov. Rick Snyder favors Proposal 6 (he doesn’t) and that the proposal would actually support the New International Trade Crossing bridge.

Michigan voters can either change this — or get used to living in a state with the worst possible government money can buy.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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