Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Minority party solidly in control of Michigan’s legislature

LANSING — Once upon a time, legislators felt they had to try to give voters the laws they wanted. True, once in a great while, some took stands on principle that risked angering their constituents.

But not very often. For many years, getting reelected meant pleasing a majority of the voters most of the time.

Today, however, there’s evidence that’s less true. In fact, in Michigan some lawmakers seem to be trying openly to thwart the will of the people.

Gerrymandered districts mean Republicans have solid control of both houses of the Legislature, even though a large majority of voters chose Democratic candidates last November.

Michigan’s harsh term limits mean lawmakers have no incentive to make decisions that might help them have long legislative careers. Unlike Ohio, where legislators must take a break after two terms, in Michigan you can serve at most six years in the House, eight in the Senate. You are then barred from further service for life.

That means there is little institutional memory, and lawmakers increasingly rely on information from lobbyists, the one group for whom there are no term limits. There is also little incentive to defy special-interest groups. They are, after all, a major source of employment for legislators who reach their maximum length of service.

Take former state Rep. Paul Opsommer. As chair of the House Transportation Committee, he opposed a new bridge across the Detroit River, even though the project’s biggest backer was a fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Snyder.

When term limits ended Mr. Opsommer’s legislative career last December, he took a job as a lobbyist for the bridge’s main opponent, Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge. Political payoffs are seldom that brazen.

But an even bigger problem occurs when lawmakers actively work to give the people the opposite of what they want, with little fear of voter retaliation.

“That‘s because most districts are strictly one-party districts today,” said Phil Power, founder of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan. “The only contest comes in the primary.”

Even worse, some lawmakers are now trying to prevent reversal of what they do by inserting a small appropriation into controversial bills. Under Michigan’s constitution, bills that appropriate money can’t be repealed by referendum.

The best-known example of this may have been the shocking way in which legislation outlawing the union shop and making Michigan a right-to-work state was rammed through in a single day during last December’s lame-duck session.

Michigan voters had shown few signs they supported the GOP’s agenda. Last November, 2.4 million voters supported Democrats for the state House of Representatives. Republican candidates got 400,000 fewer votes.

But Republicans had drawn the district lines in a way that translated into only 51 Democratic House seats, to 59 Republicans.

Still, that was a five-seat gain for the Democrats. Knowing a few Republicans opposed right-to-work, the leadership and the governor shoved this momentous law through — without even a committee hearing — before the newly elected representatives could take part.

This month, there was another successful attempt to take decisions out of the public’s hands. This time, it had to do with conservation.

Seven years ago, there was a public outcry over allowing hunters to shoot mourning doves. People gathered signatures for a referendum, and 69 percent of voters said no to hunting doves.

This time, the issue involved gray wolves, once all but extinct in Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. For years, they were an endangered species. But careful wildlife management has brought their numbers back from only six wolves in 1973 to an estimated 658 today.

The government took the wolves off the endangered species list in January — and hunters began to demand that the state allow them to be hunted as a trophy game animal.

That provoked an outcry from animal activists. Jill Fritz, Michigan director of the Humane Society of the United States, began a campaign to collect signatures for a referendum to protect the wolves.

But Republican state Sen. Thomas Casperson quickly introduced a bill that would take the right to designate an endangered species away from the Legislature and give it to the Michigan National Resources Commission (NRC), which is appointed by the governor.

He argued that wolf hunting was necessary to protect people and livestock. However, there is no indication Michigan wolves have ever attacked any human, and it was already legal to shoot or trap a wolf that was endangering livestock.

Nevertheless, a bill was quickly passed. Mr. Casperson’s attempt to put appropriations money into the bill died in committee.

But the bill specifies that even if a referendum that would prevent wolf hunting gets on the ballot, voters have no power to undo any decision to hunt wolves.

Governor Snyder immediately signed the bill transferring control over what species are hunted, saying it wasn’t about wolf hunting at all, but about “sound scientific principles.“

The next day, the NRC announced a wolf hunting season and said that hunters were welcome to kill as many as 43 wolves.

The point is not that a wolf hunt is necessarily bad, or that there aren’t arguments to be made in favor of right-to-work.

The problem is that political redistricting means that a party that has been decisively rejected by a majority of voters nevertheless remains solidly in control of the Michigan Legislature.

And that thanks to term limits and one-party districts, lawmakers have little incentive to please the people — and voters have little chance to try to bring about meaningful change.

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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