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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Will 2026 be the Year of the “Con-Con?”

February 2, 2018

DETROIT – Last week I was talking to a woman who was furious about the mess at Michigan State University. She was especially incensed by the insensitive comments made by Joel Ferguson, a member of the governing board of trustees.

“How did he get that job? Who put him there?” she asked.  “Well, you did, or at least you helped,” I told her, to her stunned surprise.  I knew she was a straight-ticket Democrat, and as a result had voted for him. I also suspected—correctly—she had no idea at all that she cast votes for those who run the state’s major universities. 

And that is one of many reasons Michigan needs a new State Constitution.  Flash back to 1960: Michigan was operating under a constitution written in 1908, when automobiles were just starting to become important, and women couldn’t vote.  George Romney, the chair of American Motors, that then-plucky challenger to the “Big Three,” led a state drive for a “Con-Con,” a constitutional convention.  Michigan voters approved an amendment making that possible that fall, the same day they helped elect John F. Kennedy President of the United States. 

Over the next two years, Constitutional Convention delegates were elected and then worked to write a better document.  Despite some dissatisfaction, in April 1963 voters narrowly approved what old-timers still call the “new” constitution.  In many ways it was an improvement; it increased the terms of statewide officeholders from two to four years, for example, and ended the custom of having voters fill jobs that most experts think should be appointed positions, such as state treasurer and auditor. 

But the “new” Constitution is now as old as the 1908 one was when it was replaced, and the fault lines are showing:

Example One: It became clear last month, when the worst sexual abuse scandal in college sports exploded at Michigan State, that the trustees weren’t willing to do anything about it.  That clearly stems from a constitutional flaw. Though the governor appoints the trustees of most Michigan universities, Michigan’s Constitution requires those who govern the state’s three largest—the  University of Michigan, MSU and Wayne State University—to be elected by a statewide vote of the people.  That might make some sense if the candidates were chosen for their education policy expertise, but they aren’t.

They are chosen by delegates to the Democratic and Republican state conventions around Labor Day.  They tend to parcel out these jobs to “balance” tickets, or as rewards. Usually voters have no idea who these people are, and most ticket-splitters ignore the education board races–except if they see familiar, hopefully beloved names.

That’s why Democrats nominated Debbie Dingell for the Wayne State board before she went to Congress. Years ago, Republicans nominated George Romney for the same board long after he was governor.  Both of them won, and worked hard at the job.  However, the situation was far different at MSU, where the board included a couple of old football players: George Perles, an 83-year-old ex-football coach, and Joel Ferguson, who for years has led a faction that put athletics ahead of anything else at the school.

The result has been a culture of cover-up for a sexual abuse scandal that may cost the school hundreds of millions.

Example Two: Michigan’s current constitution is far too easy to amend.  The U.S. Constitution has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791.  Michigan’s Constitution has been amended 32 times since 1963–and those amendments have nearly doubled the document’s length and muddled its meaning.  There have been so many amendments because it is relatively easy for a special interest with deep pockets to pay to collect signatures to slap an amendment on a statewide ballot. 

They have also largely made government harder. “A common theme of amendments, especially since 1992, has been that of weakening the legislature,” a study by the non-partisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan concluded in 2010.

Example Three:  Michigan these days needs more revenue, but is constitutionally prohibited from asking the rich to pay more than the poor.  Michigan’s constitution forbids the legislature to enact a graduated income tax, like the federal government.  There are many other examples: elementary and high school education is in trouble, and the state constitutional amendment known as “Proposal A” stands in the way of any attempt to fix things.

Michigan’s system of lifetime term limits has helped destroy institutional memory and make compromise and consensus harder than ever. And while voters who know nothing about education boards have to select candidates for those jobs, they don’t get any say in the fierce nomination battles now underway in each party to see who will emerge as candidates for state attorney general.

Unfortunately, as it now stands, voters have to wait eight years before they will get a chance to call a new constitutional convention. To be sure, the constitution could be amended to allow a vote on a con-con earlier, if any group of citizens were determined enough.  But otherwise, they’ll have to wait till 2026. The current document requires voters to be asked whether they want to try for a new constitution once every 16 years. The last time was in 2010, when they said no by almost two to one. Progressives were leery that right-wing Tea Party groups might hijack any constitutional convention and make things worse. 

John Axe, a moderate Republican Detroit attorney who has been a longtime supporter of a new con-con, said “it’s clearer than ever that the current constitution isn’t working.  I just hope I’m still alive in eight years,” he laughed.

Whether Michigan government can find a way to function better in the meantime may be even more of a concern.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

February 1, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 George W. Bird // Feb 2, 2018 at 9:47 am

    Jack

    A simple YES re a Con-Con ASAP.

    George

  • 2 Peter Eckstein // Feb 2, 2018 at 10:26 am

    Jack,

    You and I could sit down together and write a better constitution. Unfortunately, that’s not how it would be done. A con-con would be elected largely through legislative districts designed to insure control by the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, and the so-called Right-to-life. Let’s first pass the Voters Not Politicians amendment for non-partisan apportionment and resume the conversation after it has been implemented.

    In the meantime, let the two parties nominate far better qualified candidates for the MSU and other boards. As you rightly point out, some of the choices have been a disgrace.

  • 3 Steve Harry // Feb 2, 2018 at 12:32 pm

    Another item to add to the con-con wish list: Eliminate the state senate.

  • 4 Robert McKerr // Feb 4, 2018 at 3:36 pm

    Jack

    You think the present Constitution is bad wait until the constitutional convention membership is elected based 0n the existing legislative districts.
    Then you will have a constitution fit for Alabama.

  • 5 Jack Lessenberry // Feb 5, 2018 at 10:35 am

    Yes, it is very easy to be afraid of any change, isn’t it? That Declaration of Independence thing was a bad idea too. We just should have waited for a better king. Have the timid noticed what’s happening to this state?

  • 6 Duane // Feb 12, 2018 at 11:04 am

    There are so many things that need to be addressed in the constitution that have an affect on peoples everyday lives.

    The biggest fear I have is that there will be too many people from the lunatic left and radical right trying to shove their warped perspectives down my throat.

    Unless the current attitude of ‘my way or no way’ can be eliminated I can’t see where investing the time and money into a new constitution will benefit anyone but the fringe.

    If the con-con goes forward it should be populated only with the fanatically non-partisan.

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