Poll: Michigan voters skeptical about collective bargaining, bridge ballot proposals

By Dawson Bell
Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau

Michigan voters appear to be skeptical about ballot proposals to protect collective bargaining rights and to require public approval for international bridge projects, a poll conducted for the Free Press and other news media shows.

And that skepticism could be good news for enemies of the state’s beefed-up emergency manager law, who seem to be benefitting from a wave of “no” voting on the six statewide proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot.

According to the poll conducted by EPIC-MRA of Lansing for the Free Press, WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) and three outstate TV stations, neither of the high-profile proposed constitutional amendments — on collective bargaining and international crossings (aimed at blocking construction of a publicly owned bridge over the Detroit River) — is topping 50% currently.

The collective bargaining proposal stands at 48% for and 43% against, with the rest undecided. The bridge proposal, which would mandate statewide and local voter approval for any international bridge or tunnel, is ahead 47%-44%.

The emergency manager law, approved last year but suspended after opponents collected enough petition signatures to force a referendum, has the support of 42% of likely voters vs. 46% who would have it repealed.

Although both sides on all three proposals fall short of majority support, EPIC-MRA pollster Bernie Porn said that’s more of a concern for those seeking a “yes” vote. Neither supporters nor opponents of any of the three has the majority of the electorate on its side yet, he said, and proposals with backing of less than 60% this far away from an election often lose.

All of this year’s proposals have “pretty high negatives,” Porn said.

“When you have a ballot all loaded up like this, people get confused,” he said. “There’s generally solid support in Michigan for collective bargaining, but people are confused about all the other impacts.”

One factor that could play a role in the fate of the collective-bargaining and other union-backed proposals is the overall shape of the electorate, Porn said.

Positions on the proposals appear to be divided sharply along partisan lines, and if Democrats can produce another wave election like the one that propelled President Barack Obama into office in 2008, it could boost prospects for amendments supported by Democrats, he said.

According to the poll, Obama voters oppose the emergency manager law, 61%-29%, for instance, and support the collective-bargaining amendment, 66%-27%. Romney supporters are almost mirror opposite, supporting emergency managers, 60%-26%, and opposing the amendment, 64%-25%.

The partisan lines are less clear on the bridge proposal, backed by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and designed to thwart plans by Gov. Rick Snyder and the government of Canada to build a competing bridge linking Detroit and Windsor.

Although the new bridge was initially pushed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Democrats in the Legislature, Democrats are more likely to support Moroun’s ballot proposal (49%-42%) than Republicans (41%-49%).

Those results likely have been influenced by the anti-Snyder bridge ad campaign mounted by Moroun. Fifty percent of those with a favorable opinion of Snyder oppose the bridge amendment; 52% of those with an unfavorable opinion of the governor support it.

Public opinion of ballot proposals is notoriously subject to change as campaigns develop and voters sharpen their attention.

“People are just now starting to focus in (on the proposals),” said Matt Resch, spokesman for the business and taxpayer coalition called Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which was formed to oppose the union-backed proposals.

“Interest starts to spike much closer to the election when people start asking themselves, ‘What else do we have to vote on this year?’ ” he said.

That theory held up in interviews with some of the participants in the EPIC-MRA poll interviewed by the Free Press.

Ann DiFranco, 78, of St. Clair Shores said she remains confused about many of this year’s proposals and was waiting for more information before drawing firm conclusions.

“Just talking about it on the telephone doesn’t work. I have to see (the ballot language) in front of me,” DiFranco said.

The bad news for Resch’s coalition, however, is that some of the information DiFranco said she is waiting for is going to come from the UAW. She said her husband, a Ford retiree, always gets “very helpful” letters from the union before an election.

Robert Velthouse, 65, of Lansing has spent more time pondering his vote on the proposals. He’s inclined to side with the unions, as well.

Collective bargaining should be a constitutional right, said Velthouse, who said he has been a union member for 40 years. He said he is a “little bit torn” on the emergency manager law, however.

“It pains me to say it, but in some ways (the emergency manager law) is a necessity,” he said. “I know the unions take a hit” when a city or school is in financial crisis, “but so does everybody. I think to some degree, we’ve seen some success with that.”

Opponents of the union-backed proposals are also in a bit of a quandary, one in which they are mounting a campaign to “Vote No on Everything”… except Proposal 1, which needs a “yes” vote to affirm the emergency manager law.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, for example, opposes all five constitutional amendments on the ballot, but supports the emergency manager law. President and CEO Rich Studley said he has been encouraged in recent weeks by increasing awareness among voters about the proposals.

But, he said, “there are only so many hours in the day … so many arguments you can make.”

The chamber and its allies will make an effort to distinguish Proposal 1 from its ballot companions, Studley said. But “as a practical matter, you have to make some decisions about priorities,” he said, “There are a lot of bad ballot proposals, but Proposal 2 (collective bargaining) is the worst.”

Greg Bowens, spokesman for Stand Up for Democracy, the group that collected petition signatures to force the referendum on the emergency manager law, conceded that pro-union voters face the same dilemma; voting “no” on everything would dump the emergency manager law, along with collective bargaining and unions for home health care workers.

Bowens said he believes voters are discerning enough to draw the distinctions. But if some are not and pencil in “no” at every opportunity, “we’ll take votes any way we can get them,” he said.