November 16, 2012
Now that the election is over, the Michigan Constitution is again sacrosanct, right? After all, voters overwhelmingly rejected five proposals to amend the sacred document that they or their parents or grandparents had narrowly voted to adopt 49 years ago.
Remember those solemn protestations that the Constitution is holy writ and shouldn’t be cluttered with things that the legislature should handle like energy policy and unionization of home health workers? Now that the election is over, let truth be told: Regardless of whether they supported or opposed individual proposals, most legislators, judges, citizens, political reporters and leaders of clandestinely funded groups with righteous-sounding names such as the “People Should Decide” and “Protecting Michigan Taxpayers” have never read the full Constitution.
I’ll bet $50 that an overwhelming majority of the 110 newly elected representatives—regardless of party—haven’t read all of it either. Perhaps they’ll take a few hours to do so before Jan. 1 when they solemnly assume office with an oath to defend it. Caveat: It runs almost 53 pages.
There’s a disturbing hypocrisy among anti-amenders who professed reverence for the unread document and argued that it must be left unchanged—although they actually meant not changed in ways they disagree with. Yet during the 2011–12 session, lawmakers on both sides of the partisan aisle introduced 75 joint resolutions to amend the Constitution. Some do address the fundamental structure of government—things that arguably belong in a foundational document like the Constitution—such as making the legislature part-time, establishing a redistricting commission, imposing residency requirements for legislative candidates and appointing Supreme Court justices.
But others? Enshrine in the Constitution: “the right of farmers and ranchers to employ technology and modern practices” from Rep. Kevin Daley (R-Lum)? “The right to hunt, trap and fish” from Rep. Bruce Rendon (R-Lake City)? Prohibit “illegal aliens from collecting public assistance” from Sen. Joe Hune (R-Hamburg)? Establish an “African-American university as a public university and provide for its financial support” from Rep. John Olumba (D-Detroit)?
My confession: I intended to graduate from the never-read-it majority when I started writing this column because I, too, was a constitutional slacker despite covering Michigan government, politics, courts and policy full-time and part-time since 1984. However, as a journalist, I already had some favorite provisions:
- Article I, Section 5: Every person may freely speak, write, express and publish his views on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of such right; and no law shall be enacted to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.
- Article I, Section 19: In all prosecutions for libels the truth may be given in evidence to the jury; and, if it appears to the jury that the matter charged as libelous is true and was published with good motives and for justifiable ends, the accused shall be acquitted.
- Article IX, Section 23. All financial records, accountings, audit reports and other reports of public moneys shall be public records and open to inspection. A statement of all revenues and expenditures of public moneys shall be published and distributed annually, as provided by law.
I didn’t meet my goal of getting all the way through to page 54 where the document ends with the names of Stephen S. Nisbet, president, and Fred I. Chase, secretary, of the constitutional convention.
Skimming through the parts I skipped, I discovered several provisions that are true attention killers. My eyes glazed over partway through the 352-word amendment that restricts human embryonic stem cell research. I wondered why we needed 1,454 words to enshrine the Michigan Conservation and Recreation Legacy Fund. The 1978 Headlee Amendment limiting tax increases also runs more than 1,400 mind-numbing words. The Korean service bonus bonds provision was a puzzler to me.
Article 2, Section 2 begins, “Amendments may be proposed to this constitution by petition of the registered electors of this state.” But whether you read the Constitution or not, the election results should give pause to those would ask voters in the future to amend it. And so should the bottom line: Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimates that organized ballot committees spent about $145 million to pass or defeat the five proposed amendments, mostly by groups that haven’t disclosed—and aren’t required to disclose—their donors. And that figure excludes money spent by the parties.
“We’re in pretty rarified company with spending at this level,” Robinson says. “This is close to California scale.”