A Partisan Pill for Michigan's Foundational Problems

Cynicism about politics got one of its biggest boosts in recent memory with the revelation that the Reform Michigan Government Now ballot proposal is nothing more than a scheme to bring about universal Democratic Party rule. There is no question that Michigan needs fundamental reform; what it does not need is a sugar-coated, poisonous, partisan pill that does nothing to fix Michigan’s foundational problems.

The ballot proposal is phony but the economic misery is real. As of June, Michigan had the highest unemployment rate in the country at 8.5 percent. The state per capita income is 9.1 percent below the national average, an approximately seven-decade low-water mark. The budget battle in 2007 did not solve Michigan’s structural problems; instead, it led to a $1.5 billion tax hike and record spending levels.

So RMGN’s unidentified backers found a receptive audience for what they described as a “bipartisan” measure that would reduce the number of legislators, cut pay and benefits for elected officials, and require the disclosure of politicians’ assets. It appeared a novel and populist way for voters to express their displeasure.

Except the whole thing was a ruse. While researching union expenditures on a UAW local Web site, a labor intern for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy discovered a PowerPoint presentation — “Changing the rules of politics in Michigan to help Democrats” — that revealed a partisan plot hatched in late 2007.

According to the presentation, the primary aim was to obtain redistricting advantages for Democrats. Slide eight stated that securing a majority in every branch of government was “an extremely expensive and very long shot proposition.” But, according to the presentation, “Redistricting reform by itself will not be approved by the voters.” In order to succeed, “redistricting reform must be a small part of a larger, popular state government reform proposal.” In other words, sweet-tasting reforms were necessary to make the rancid power grab palatable.

To secure the redistricting advantage, RMGN would need to alter Michigan’s courts. It was therefore necessary, according to the presentation, to “Reduce the number of Supreme Court Justices from seven to five; two GOP Justices eliminated” and “Reduce the Court of Appeals from 28 to 20 judges, most of them [former Republican Gov. John] Engler appointees.” Using differing mechanisms, RMGN would oust duly elected judges and alter the makeup of Michigan’s three highest courts.

The detailed 34-slide presentation also included polling data that showed that 82 percent of Michiganders believed the state was on the wrong track. Only 12 percent approved of the legislative job performance. Two-thirds opposed the recent tax increases. The proposed reform would capitalize on this sentiment and “change the structural obstacles to Democratic control of state government in 2012-2021.”

Not surprisingly, the proposed amendment has generated a court challenge. Opponents argue that the proposal is a constitutional revision that requires a constitutional convention, that the measure is too complex to be described within 100 words as required by the Michigan Constitution and that there are technical deficiencies in the amendment, including a reference to a section of the Constitution that does not exist.

But even a court rejection could play into the hands of Reform Michigan Government Now. In a campaign commercial aired prior to the discovery of the PowerPoint presentation, the Michigan Democratic Party contended that any negative court ruling would demonstrate that Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, a model of judicial restraint and the sole justice up for election, was biased. Apparently the drafters believed that they would get two shots at the Michigan Supreme Court. Two justices would be removed if the proposal passes and a court rejection would be campaign fodder against Taylor.

Despite the plotters’ best intentions, this “reform” amendment has been shown to be bad medicine for Michigan, nothing more than a phony partisan scheme. Enshrining partisan advantage in a state Constitution should be avoided at all costs.


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