Fixing The Mitten
A Vision for Good Government Reform in Michigan
The Michigan Constitution of 1963 is the foundation document of state government. For the most part the Constitution of 1963 has served our state well; there are many things it got right but the framers left a few things out or overly vague. Additionally, through the years it has been amended and subject to court interpretations that have resulted in inefficiencies and some structures that do not make much sense. So, we have the following suggestions to improve the Constitution of 1963 and enhance good government in our beloved state:
- Eliminate Lame Duck sessions of the Legislature. The Legislature has 22 months to act in their normal legislative session before the regular fall election in the second year of the session. If that's not enough time to conduct the business of the Legislature than we need new legislators. We would allow of an emergency lame duck session, provided all four legislative caucus leaders agreed an emergency existed that required the immediate attention of the outgoing Legislature.
- Create a State Government Ethics Panel. This watchdog panel would review state contracts and respond to citizen inquiries regarding conflicts of interest and ethical complaints against state elected officials, appointees, and employees. Michigan has some of the weakest ethics rules and enforcement procedures for state government in the country. We should be a model of honest and open government. An independent ethics panel comprised of retired judges would ensure accountability and openness at all levels in our state government.
- Protect the Citizen Referendum. The Constitution protects Citizen-lead Initiatives from post-election meddling by the Legislature. Citizen-lead Referendums should enjoy the same protections. As we have seen with the Emergency Financial Manager law the Legislature and Governor simply changed a few words in the bill that citizens rejected and passed a new Emergency Manager law. This is not only disingenuous, it flies in the face of the entire Referendum concept. We would propose that the Legislature be barred from passing the same bill for at least two years. Additionally, we would propose eliminating the loophole in the Constitution that allows the Legislature to make controversial laws "Referendum-proof" by attaching a small and meaningless appropriation to the bill. It is clear the Framers did not want the state budget subject to Referendum, and we agree as that would lead to chaos, but it was never the intention of the Framers to block citizen involvement on non-budget bills and just tacking a small amount of money on a bill does not make it a real appropriations bill.
- Change the Initiative, Referendum and Constitutional Amendment requirements. Currently, a citizen petition for a referendum requires signatures from 5% of the total votes casts in the most recent Gubernatorial election, an Initiative 8% and a Constitutional Amendment 10%. It makes little sense that the difference between an Initiative and Amendment is 2% and it is little wonder most efforts will go for an Amendment rather than an Initiative. In recent elections, Michigan voters have sent clear signals that they do not want the Constitution amended in omnibus fashion every two years. Thus, we would propose changing the petition percent requirements to 5%, 10% and 15% for Referendum, Initiative and Constitutional Amendment.
- Eliminate the Constitutional ban on a graduated state income tax. Did you know Michigan could solve its continual general fund budget issues while giving 95% of state residents a break on their state income taxes? It's simple, if Michigan moved to a fair and reasonable graduated state income tax, the vast majority of residents would see a decrease in their state income taxes, some would have no change and a very few would see an increase (by the way, state income taxes can be written off on the Federal Filing - often making the net effect of state income tax 0%). This simple and small change would end the boom and bust cycle of state general fund revenues and ensure stable funding for public safety, higher education, environmental and consumer protection, local government revenue sharing and general government functions.
- Expand Access to the Ballot Box. In a constitutional democracy the government should be making it easier to vote, not putting unnecessary hurdles in the way of citizens that want to exercise their franchise. Lansing and national Republicans have created the myth of voter fraud, it occurs on less than .001% of ballots, to justify placing restrictions on voter ballot access (In Michigan the most recent ballot fraud issues have all been the doing of Republicans and relate to candidates filing false petitions, see: Thad McCotter and Schmidt/Bolger). They have primarily done this through voter identification requirements that disproportionately effect poor and minority voters. This is wrong, instead of trying to stop voters state law should make it easier for all eligible citizens to vote. This includes: eliminating identification requirements (the old law worked just fine and protected from fraud while allowing access), no-reason absentee voting (i.e. voting by mail), and same day registration. Further we must ensure the integrity of the process and that is why all electronic voting machines must be required by law to produced a re-countable and verifiable paper receipt for each voter.
- Create an Independent Redistricting Commission. Voters should choose their elected officials, not the politicians choosing their voters. The new Redistricting Commission would be a bi-partisan board of four Republicans, four Democrats, and a non-partisan chair. The board would craft Congressional, State House, State Senate, and State Court of Appeals districts without regard to partisan make-up, contiguous, and that break as few municipal boundaries as possible. We provide further explanation of our proposed Redistricting Commission in this post.
- Enhance the Authority and Role of the State Board of Canvassers. In a representative democracy the sanctity of elections and fairness in all elections processes is the hallmark of good government. So, it makes little sense that the state agency overseeing our elections and ensuring a fair process reports to a partisan elected official. We would propose moving the Bureau of Elections out of the Secretary of State's office and placing them under the authority of the State Board of Canvassers (which would become an independent state agency).
- Reform Legislative Term Limits. Term limits were passed by Michigan voters in 1992 as part of a state-by-state effort to reconfigure the make up of Congress. Term limit supporters included state legislative chambers in their efforts but sold the concept to voters as an effort to reform the ills of Washington DC (isn't it interesting that reforming the work of DC has been a popular concept since 1789). Well, the federal courts struck down state-by-state terms limits for Congress but in many states the term limit law provisions still held for state legislatures - including Michigan. Thus, state representatives can only serve for 3 two-year terms and state senators for 2 four-year terms. This has created a mess in Lansing. Instead of being "citizen legislators" as was the argument for term limits; state reps and senators scurry around Lansing angling for their next elected office or lobbying job and the only people with institutional knowledge and a full concept of the history and long-term consequences of legislative action are un-elected staff members and lobbyists. This is a recipe for disaster (see the road funding debacle of 2015). We would support the out right elimination of term limits, but short of that we would favor a system that allowed for 16 or 20 years of total service in the legislature (could serve in either chamber for a total of 16 or 20 years - e.g.: 4 terms in the Senate or 4 terms in the House and 2 terms in the Senate or any other combination there of that totaled 16 or 20 years).