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Unions, Republicans, environmentalists, utilities, EFMs and a billionaire: Ballot proposals 2012

by Walt Sorg

The Legislature no longer represents the people of Michigan. That’s the inevitable implication of next month’s bed-sheet ballot to bypass lawmakers with five proposals to change the state Constitution, plus a referendum on a law jammed through the Legislature on a party-line vote.

Michigan is a purple state with predominantly centrist voters: Voters consistently lean Democratic for president and U.S. Senate; the last Republican to win Michigan’s electoral votes was George H.W. Bush in 1988; the last Republican elected to the Senate was one-termer Spencer Abraham in 1994. Michigan has alternated between Republicans and Democrats in the Governor’s Office since 1970. 

In contrast, the Michigan Legislature has been very conservative over most of the last decade thanks to gerrymandered districting, often inept Democratic Party leadership and a 2010 election in which the Tea Party dominated Republican primaries — and steamrolled Democrats.

(The impact of gerrymandering is best seen in the state Senate. The 2010 vote went 52-48 for Republicans, but the GOP won 68 percent of the seats.)

So if the Legislature isn’t representative, the Constitution offers the people a remedy through ballot proposals. A referendum allows a public vote on a law, but the will of the people can be readily thwarted by the Legislature (medical marijuana being the latest example). An amendment to the Constitution provides additional protection against legislative mischief.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the state’s legal foundation is changed often. In the 49 years since it was adopted, a total of 69 amendments have been proposed and 32 were adopted. Since 2004, six of seven proposed constitutional amendments were ratified by the voters, including defining marriage as between one woman and one man.

Putting an issue on the ballot costs a lot of money. Constitutional amendments required submitting 322,609 valid signatures; the one referendum proposal (challenging the Emergency Financial Manager law) required 258,087 signatures. Even a true “grass roots” campaign requires upwards of $150,000 to get on the ballot. This year, as much as $30 million is being spent on mostly deceptive and some downright deceitful television and direct mail advertising.

This year’s proposals fall into one of four categories:
-Unions vs. Republicans
-State control vs. local control
-Environmentalists vs. electric utilities
-Billionaire Matty Moroun vs. just about everyone else

Proposals 5 and 6: The Billionaire´s ballot proposals

Two proposals on the ballot are the product of one billionaire’s efforts. Matty Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, used his massive wealth to put Proposals 5 and 6 on the ballot, spending millions in mostly inaccurate, misleading and sometimes dishonest advertising.

Proposal 5 would require a two-thirds vote in both the state House and Senate to enact any tax increase. Opponents, who come from across the political spectrum, say this has the potential to destroy many government services in the state. The proposal cynically builds on the mistaken belief that taxes are going up in Michigan when the opposite is true: Since 2000, the effective state tax rate has gone down 10.3 percent.

Prop 5 would make it possible for 13 members of the state Senate to stop any tax increase. It would make it impossible to raise money to fix Michigan roads, improve K-12 education or lower college tuitions.

It would even make tax reform impossible. There is widespread agreement that the personal property tax, assessed against a business’s fixed assets and inventory, needs to be replaced. The tax itself can be repealed or lowered, but it would take a two-thirds vote to replace the revenue with another tax.

Moroun’s chief ally for Proposal 5 is national anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist. The proposal is opposed by just about everyone else: dozens of organizations including Republican-leaning groups like the state Chamber of Commerce, Business Leaders for Michigan, West Michigan Tea Party and Michigan Farm Bureau — as well as every Democratic-leaning organization.

Proposal 6 is the ultimate in “special interest” change. It is a blatant effort by Moroun to protect his international bridge monopoly in Detroit. He has backed the effort with millions in advertising that fact-checkers unanimously conclude are mostly lies or distortions.

Moroun’s claim that the bridge could cost Michigan taxpayers untold millions is bogus, according to all independent analyses. According to the Citizens Research Council, “Michigan state government is not responsible for any costs of the new bridge or related projects.”

Prop 6 is opposed by the auto manufacturers (which rely on daily parts shipments between Michigan and Ontario), the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and dozens of other business and labor interests who all concur that Snyder negotiated a superb deal for the taxpayers of Michigan: A free bridge that will be built by Canada and paid for through user fees.

The UAW has curiously not taken a position on the bridge amendment. The Detroit Free Press recently reported about talk that Moroun and the UAW had secretly discussed a deal in which the union would support Prop 6 in exchange for some Moroun cash in support of the UAW-backed Proposal 2. 

UAW President Bob King has brushed aside the allegations without totally denying them.

Support comes mostly from politicians who have received significant financial support from Moroun, and the Teamsters local, which represents workers at the Ambassador Bridge. Tom Shields, the spokesman for the pro-bridge coalition, rightly asks: “Is there anyone supporting Proposal 6 who is not on the Moroun payroll?”