by Breanna Camarillo
April 16, 2009
Historically, the once-every-16-years possibility of voters authorizing a rewrite of the Michigan Constitution has drawn little more than yawns in Lansing.
That’s why this year, on the eve of the next required vote, and in a climate of great economic hardship and calls for political change, Bob LaBrant wants to make sure many of the state’s key interest groups aren’t caught napping.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce senior vice president is among those trying to head off any surprises by getting out front with the message that Michigan’s doesn’t need an expensive overhaul of its governing document. The Chamber and Michigan Education Association, which don’t agree on a lot of policy issues, even teamed up earlier this month to begin mobilizing association and other capital opinion leaders by briefing them on the mechanics and ramifications of the required 2010 ballot question.
Since 1850, the state Constitution has retained a provision that automatically asks voters every 16 years if they’d like to convene a delegation to rewrite the Constitution. Voters have adopted a new state constitution four times, most recently in 1963 following a “Yes” vote in 1961 on convening a constitutional convention, or “Con Con.” Voters said “No” to the Con Con question in 1978 and 1994.
Perhaps the biggest political question surrounding next year’s vote is whether backers of last year’s ill-fated Reform Michigan Government Now! ballot proposal, which set out to allow no-reason absentee voting and cut the size of the legislature, among dozens of other far-reaching constitutional changes, are still out there planning to organize a charge toward a convention.
“[Reform Michigan Government Now! supporters] led a stealthy campaign,” said LaBrant, “so we’re not letting our guard down just yet.”
The Supreme Court last year ruled that the proposal was too broad to go on the ballot as a single initiative and that, in fact, the changes within it belonged at a Con Con.
Although the Reform group, backed by state Democrats and organized labor, may not have made it to the polls, supporters of the proposal were successful in rallying dissatisfied voters in an economically unstable climate, something they could try again through the mandatory 2010 ballot question.
Mark Brewer, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said that without official word from his party, Democrats are not backing the idea yet. But personally, he says, he thinks it would be a great opportunity for voters to air their frustrations with the current system.
While opponents have said the Reform group brought people together by harnessing negative energy from an ill economy, Brewer argued that people flocked to the initiative because it finally stirred public debate for those who want to change “business as usual.”
“It’s a shame voters never got to vote on the issues in the proposal, ” he said, “but even now the proposal could affect the outcome of a Con-Con vote.”
That’s not to say Brewer is giving up on the original initiative, since, he said, he still thinks it would be easier, less costly and involve as much public scrutiny to put the proposal on the ballot as having a constitutional convention.
Need for change
LaBrant said that while there are a few needed changes in the Constitution, they don’t amount to “fatal flaws” that would require a total rewrite of the document. Further, he said, opening up the document entirely would leave the state vulnerable to out-of-state interests and political action money, as well as to fringe groups (such as those that would legalize assisted suicide or drugs) that would likely try to insert their point of view into the Constitution.
Not the least of the Chamber’s worries is the likelihood that a convention would drive the state farther into debt, with an estimated cost to public coffers as high as $51 million if the convention were to last seven to 10 months.
There’s a good chance that, especially in these tough times, Michiganders aren’t willing to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on a Con Con, according to Chamber polls. Those show that while 60 percent of residents may have thought a convention was a good idea in early polls, only 25 percent of people polled said they would vote for a Con Con after they were told the high costs.
As for how much the Chamber will invest in its anti Con Con campaign, LaBrant said it could compare to the “modest’ spending the group put forth against Dennis Stabenow (U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow’s-former husband), who led the fight for a Con Con in 1978. Or, if no pro-convention group comes forth in 2010, next year could look more like the campaign in 1994 when the Chamber led an anti-convention push without any organized opposition and very few expenditures.
If voters approve a Con Con, some of the issues in the Reform proposal that could end up fodder for a rewrite include permanently lowering wages for elected officials, trimming the size of the courts and redrawing legislative districts.
Other possible ideas that could take center stage: abortion rights, the death penalty, the sales tax cap and graduated income tax prohibition, Headlee tax limits and other Headlee issues, public school district consolidation, elimination of township government, restoring affirmative action programs, same-sex bans, physician-assisted suicide, legalization of drugs, allowing public aid to non-public schools, and school funding equity issues.
Another change many mention is modification or elimination of legislative term limits.
Tom Watkins, a business and education consultant in the U.S. and China and the former state superintendent of schools, said the Con Con question could pass even without an organized effort for a convention. If enough people get word that they can use their vote to make a change, he said, a vote for a Con Con may become likely, because people are fed up with Michigan’s “broken system” and the lack of urgency from its leaders to make changes.
He said while the legislature could use its two-thirds vote to make changes to the Constitution and submit them to voters, he doesn’t trust lawmakers, since he “can’t name one sensible reform passed by the legislature and the governor in the last decade.”
“The lawmakers and the special interests should fear that people are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore,” Watkins said. “They will take the only option available to them, and that is the constitutional convention.”
But LaBrant said a convention is reserved for extraordinary times like in 1961-62, the last time the state approved a rewrite of the document. He said that while there are some things that need changing in the Constitution, it is “fundamentally sound.”
In rapid response to an opinion piece in March in which Watkins said the Constitution, “like a 1963 car,” needs a tune-up, LaBrant said a constitutional convention would amount to more than replacing a few spark plugs on an otherwise cherry Mustang — it would be a total rebuild.
(For argument and accuracy’s sake, it should be noted that Watkins’ op-ed actually reads that the Constitution needs both a tune-up and “an overhaul.”)
“Revising the Constitution is more than a tune-up, it’s an overhaul,” LaBrant said. “[With a Con Con, the state would be] replacing the engine and the transmission.” “A tune-up involves changing a spark plug,” he said, explaining that normal amendments are Michigan’s constitutional “spark plugs.”
The state can and should give the Constitution a tune-up, looking at issues individually and then doing so with ballot initiatives or through the legislature and a two-thirds vote, LaBrant said.
Former Attorney General Frank Kelley, who studied the Constitution as part of the group Citizens for Michigan, agreed.
While the group issued a report in 2006 recommending a Con Con because it said the document had more than 60 flaws in it, Kelley has softened on the idea since then.
Kelley said that voters and the legislature could use ballot initiatives to clean up the issues in the current document instead of using taxpayer money to fund a Con Con in “dire times.”
Watkins said he agrees with opponents of a convention that there would be risks to opening up the document completely.
“But the governor and the legislature have a way to avoid the risk by bringing about sensible reform before [November 2010)],” Watkins said. “Change can only be ignored for so long, and we’re getting to a point where it can no longer be ignored.”
Asked why there is an organized effort against the convention, from the MEA and the Chamber, but not an effort for the convention, Watkins said: “there’s no constituency for change.”
“Everybody’s for change. It’s the most talked about thing right now. There’s not a shortage of ideas out there, but no one wants to act on it,” Watkins said. “There’s a lack of political will.”
Too much change
But Doug Roberts, a former longtime state official who now directs the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said change might be exactly what kills the idea of a convention.
He said he thinks many people are paying attention to national policies and a new president who ran on a platform of change, and asking for a rewrite of the Constitution now would probably overwhelm them.
“Most people are trying to digest an immense amount of change that’s taken place in the last six months at the federal level and they may not have an appetite for more,” Roberts said.
But although he doesn’t think most people can stomach rewriting the Constitution right now, Roberts said they shouldn’t avoid debating the issue for fear of causing discourse.
“The most interesting part of all of this is simply that there is a [ballot] question and that it gets people thinking,” he said, adding that he hopes educators use the Con Con question to encourage students to read the Constitution and decide whether they would vote for a rewrite.
Because many people likely haven’t read the document, the Citizens Research Council plans to publish online a series of papers analyzing the pros and cons of the current Constitution, how a revision might affect state and local government efficiency and other issues related to the Con Con question, said Eric Lupher, director of local affairs for the Council.
One consideration in its papers probably won’t be cost, since Lupher said, “if the document needs to be fixed, it should be fixed, no matter the cost.”
The convention question will appear on the November 2, 2010 ballot as Proposal 1. If approved, a delegation of 148 people, chosen from the current Senate and House districts, must be elected within six months, with the convention to begin by the following October.
Just how those elections would function is an added concern, since, according to the Chamber and IPPSR, lobbying laws don’t seem to address the activities in delegate races. That means the legislature should change lobby and election laws to ensure that spending caps and reporting requirements apply to delegates, they said.
It’s also troubling that delegate races would come on the heels of several big state races, including those for the secretary of state, governor and attorney general, which would likely drain Michigan PAC money and leave state delegate candidates vulnerable to out of-state-money, which could then result in non-Michigan agendas ending up in Michigan’s Constitution, LaBrant said.
IPPSR’s Roberts agreed that could be an issue and said that delegate races should be one of the “few exceptions in political races that are publicly funded to ensure the delegates represent the peoples’ interests.”
He also expressed some concern with getting quality people to leave secure jobs for up to a year to serve as delegates, saying that most don’t have positions that would allow them to take leave to ponder the Constitution for a few months and then return to the same job.
LaBrant said that if a Con Con were to move forward, he expects that quite a few term-limited, former legislators would turn out to run in delegate races.
As for whether the delegate post could catapult any political careers, as it did with many now well-known leaders from the 1960s delegation, including former Governor George Romney, most insiders doubt the short-term position would lead to much more than temporary notoriety.
Breanna Camarillo is a Capitol reporter for Gongwer News Service.