Election presents large crop of potential constitutional amendments

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Staff reports

Many voters will head to the polls Nov. 6 aiming to cast their ballot for president. But across Michigan, citizens also will be asked to make a decision about an additional 10,000 races, including six ballot proposals.

Six is a large number of ballot proposals for voters to tackle in an election year, but it is not unheard of, said Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. Citizens faced six in 2002 and 1996, but only dealt with two proposals during 2010 and 2008.

“Six is unusually high, but it’s not unprecedented,” Ballenger said.

Several other organizations aimed to place additional proposals on the ballot, but were stymied by a vote of the Board of State Canvassers, or by the courts. Made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, the board is “just a recipe for gridlock,” Ballenger said.

“It used to be this board saw itself just as a validator of whether enough signatures had been collected … and that was it,” he said. “Now it’s gotten into a situation where literally if you’re on the Board of State Canvassers and you don’t like one of the proposals, you (can shut it down).”

This set-up led to creative legal challenges this year. Opponents of Proposal 1, which aims to repeal Public Act 4 of 2011 in favor of the previous version of the emergency financial manager law, fought the petition on the basis of font size. Other challenges over the complexity of the petitions’ legal ramifications filled courtrooms.

“It looks like that’s going to continue unless there is a constitutional amendment to change the Board of State Canvassers,” Ballenger said. Which might, in and of itself, require a ballot proposal.

Despite common perception, however, these questions were not pushed to a vote through grassroots citizen movements, said Rich Robinson, director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Instead, big money and special interests rule the day.

“Generally, proponents are interest groups with deep pockets and they pay petition circulators to get the necessary signatures,” Robinson said.

Proposal 2, which aims to enshrine collective bargaining in the constitution, raised more than $8.1 million through July 20, according to a report by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Sponsored by Protect Our Jobs, major donors include the United Auto Workers, the Michigan Education Association, AFSCME and several other unions.

Proposal 3 strives to require 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. Robinson said it’s a “pretty straight-forward contest between environmentalists, on one hand, and the utilities and their industrial customers on the other.” The sponsor, Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs, raised more than $2.2 million by July 20, but the opposition has raised about $6.2 million from DTE Energy and CMS Energy.

Proposal 4 would provide some collective bargaining rights for home health care workers. The donor, Home Care First, has thrown more than $1.8 million behind the effort, spending more than $1.5 million of that on petition circulation.

Both Proposals 5 and 6 are funded by groups connected to the Ambassador Bridge’s owner, Matty Moroun. Proposal 5 requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for tax increases, and Proposal 6 requires a vote of the citizens for any new international bridge in an attempt to block the New International Trade Crossing agreement between Michigan and Canada. Between the two proposals, he has poured in more than $7 million.

Proposal 1 seems to be an exception to the interest group trend, Robinson said. The original sponsor, Stand Up For Democracy, spent only $165,000 to gather the necessary petitions, and only took in $183,861 by July 20, mostly from AFSCME. Six also is the only proposal that aims to amend statute rather than the constitution.

“Prop 1 got its signatures at the lowest cost… indicating there was some authentic grassroots support mustered to collect signatures,” Robinson said.

In addition to the millions gathered by unions and businesses to push the lower five proposals into the constitution, other interest groups have begun raising money and mobilizing to oppose Proposals 2 through 6 as a whole. Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution had raised the most as of July 20 – just more than $340,000. About $100,000 of that came from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which also has its own PAC focusing on opposing the ballot proposals.

Gov. Rick Sndyer also got involved in the dispute over the proposals, releasing YouTube videos and a blog post on Sept. 18 asking citizens to vote against the constitutional amendments found in Proposals 2 through 6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHA2zx_yPN8

“Enshrining these seriously flawed proposals within our constitution would roll back positive reforms that are helping reinvent our state, and I encourage citizens to view them with skepticism,” Snyder said in a release.

As both proponents and opponents gear up for the final month before Michigan voters hit the polls, the bonanza of issues has some questioning the signature collection process. Many special interests pay professionals to collect signatures, often per valid signature.

“There is a lot of talk about making illegal the collection of signatures for pay,” Ballenger said. “The problem is it runs up against what is known as the First Amendment, … meaning that it’s a free country and freedom of expression includes paying people to get signatures.”

To view the ballot you will be handed on Election Day, including the language of the six proposals, visit the Michigan Voter Information Center at www.michigan.gov/sos.

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