Stephen Henderson: Petition rights are important; so is the ability to vote ‘no’

“And there’s Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s idiotic proposal to require a statewide vote before any international crossing gets built — not just across the Detroit River, but anywhere. While we’re at it, why don’t we require statewide votes for every public road project? Good luck getting I-75 rebuilt next time it’s crumbling.”

Stephen Henderson
Detroit Free Press editorial page editor


While I have little doubt that the Michigan Supreme Court did the right thing by putting most of this year’s proposed ballot initiatives before voters in November, I’m much more certain that all of them should be rejected.

The state constitution says the people have a right to petition for changes big or small to government, and hundreds of thousands of Michiganders signed documents this year to be able to have their say over a wide range of issues.

But as a policy matter, government by initiative is among the worst implements of democracy, sometimes back-dooring ideas that can’t get traction through the Legislature — or a means for wealthy special interests to force statewide votes on issues of narrow self-interest.

Ballot initiatives offer no chance for reasonable dialogue about serious issues. They’re an up-or-down vote, period, with no chance to tweak or modify a proposal that might have some merit but not necessarily as it’s first crafted.

Even worse, though, most now aspire to muck up the state constitution — which should be a framework for how government operates, not a laundry list of policy imperatives.

This year’s crop of ballot initiatives is among the worst I’ve seen in Michigan, and there are more of them than voters have faced in a long time.

If even a few pass, I fear Michigan will become tougher to govern, less appealing to businesses and residents, and constitutionally locked into extreme positions that we will all regret in years to come.

It will be ugly.

The irony, of course, is that I actually support some of the basic policy ideas contained in the ballot initiatives. I just don’t think they belong in the constitution.

Collective bargaining, for example, is a pretty important tool for labor, one of the only ways for workers to exercise any leverage with management.

But that’s not a constitutional right. And putting it into the constitution will handcuff employers, and specifically government employers, as they try to manage their enterprises. It would prevent the Legislature from keeping control of the kind of overly generous benefits or retirement packages that are now crushing local governments.

And the proposal is worded so broadly (and so badly) that it would have myriad unintended consequences. Public Act 312, for example, which establishes mandatory arbitration when police and firefighters deadlock with cities over their contracts, would likely be gutted.

The ballot initiative called 25×25 is another clunker. The goal sounds wonderful: 25% of the state’s energy consumption by 2025 will be from renewable sources.

But again, a constitutional amendment is an overbearing and ham-handed way to achieve that. Already, the Legislature has a bipartisan deal to get the state to 10% renewables by 2015. That agreement is working just fine and, more important, can be tweaked by lawmakers if, for example, it chases away businesses or if advances in technology change the state’s energy picture altogether.

The smart way to manage this issue would be to let the Legislature deal with it through at least 2015, then negotiate a new goal from there.

The constitutional amendment is an attempt to snatch this issue away from lawmakers, and hammer a precise goal onto everyone who uses electricity in the state. It would be impossible, if this were in the constitution, to adjust its effects. And why would you commit to an unchangeable goal for the year 2025 in 2012? Thirteen years is a very long horizon in energy prediction.

There are other awful proposals that will make the ballot. There’s a bid to require two-thirds of the Legislature to vote for any tax increase — a sure way to prevent any reasonable discussion of revenue and, possibly, an inadvertent barrier to tax decreases as well. And there’s Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s idiotic proposal to require a statewide vote before any international crossing gets built — not just across the Detroit River, but anywhere. While we’re at it, why don’t we require statewide votes for every public road project? Good luck getting I-75 rebuilt next time it’s crumbling.

This is just no way to govern the state, or for the people here to govern themselves.

In November, voters really need to turn down all of these proposals.

Bridge deal protects against interference from Moroun

By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau

LANSING – The bridge deal signed Friday between Michigan and Canada includes language intended to nullify a petition drive spearheaded by the owner of the Ambassador Bridge to require a public vote on the New International Trade Crossing, a Lansing attorney and constitutional expert says.

The agreement says any references to state law in the agreement refer to the law at the time the agreement was signed – meaning last Friday.

Richard McLellan, a Lansing attorney who advised former Gov. John Engler on state constitutional and executive issues, said that wording is aimed at “assuring Michigan’s continuing compliance with the agreement.”

In an analysis of the agreement sent out over the weekend, McLellan said:

“Canada has required that, before it commits billions of dollars for the most important infrastructure project in their country, that its partner, Michigan, not be able to renege by changing its constitution.”

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun, who opposes the public bridge, is collecting signatures to amend the Michigan constitution to require a public vote on the proposed bridge.

McLellan is a supporter of the bridge but said he prepared his analysis on his own and “they were not prepared for any client or organization.”

Mickey Blashfield, the bridge company’s director of government relations, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mickey Blashfield, the bridge company’s director of government relations, said it appears the Snyder administration is trying to dissuade voters from signing the petition or voting on the bridge in November.

The legal opinion voiced by McLellan is flawed, but the courts will decide that, Blashfield said.

“The real question is, does the governor not want the people to vote?” Blashfield said. “It certainly looks that way, based on his actions.”

Blashfield said the apparent effort to dampen interest in the petition is having the opposite effect. Interest has been overwhelming since Friday and has already pushed the effort beyond the roughly 323,000 valid signatures it needs.

The Michigan Constitution provides for interlocal agreements between agencies or subdivisions of state government and Canada, but not agreements authorized by the government alone, Blashfield said. Also, he said, the U.S. Constitution bans treaties between a state and a foreign country.

Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, had no immediate comment.

EDITORIAL: Voters shouldn’t fall for Moroun’s ballot proposal

The News-Herald

Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a deal to construct a second bridge across the Detroit River on Friday, and all that seems to stand in the way of getting shovels into the ground is federal approval.

But as we’ve learned, nothing is certain when Manuel “Matty” Moroun has a stake.

The Ambassador Bridge owner will almost certainly sue to keep the project from proceeding and, in America, that’s his right if he feels his business is being threatened.

All the same, voters in the region and across the state need not go along with the bridge owner’s current campaign to clog the wheels of progress.Moroun is bankrolling a petition drive that would require voter approval before any bridge or tunnel is constructed across the river. Ads touting the drive have warned voters that Michigan taxpayers will be stuck with the cost of the bridge.

As Snyder and several media watchdogs have pointed out, that isn’t true.

Michigan’s share of construction costs — about $550 million — will come from Ottawa and be repaid with tolls. The cost of a customs clearing center in Detroit will be handled by the U.S. government.

Business leaders on both sides of the river had been calling for a new span even before the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks slowed traffic on the Ambassador Bridge due to more stringent customs checks, and the jobs the preparation and construction of the new bridge can only help a region that’s still feeling the full effects of a worldwide recession.

What’s more, Moroun’s petition drive adds a needless step to the democratic process.

We elect legislators and executives for a reason, and to call for second-guessing anytime someone rich and powerful enough to prompt a petition drive needlessly gums up the business of the state. Snyder, stymied by a state Senate committee, found a way to get the new bridge built without a dime of the state’s money. Michigan’s voters easily elected Snyder to tackle the state’s economic problems, and he’s done just that.

Tough times call for creative thinking, and we admire the governor for seeking ways to move the state forward in spite of a handful of legislators who seem to have put Moroun’s largesse ahead of Michigan’s interests. Call us cynical, but billionaires don’t spread money all over the state capitol just to make friends; it’s because they want to make sure they get their way.

Michigan has long neglected its infrastructure, and rehabbing the state’s roads and bridges has been one of Snyder’s priorities as he seeks to make the state attractive to new businesses.

We hope the new bridge prompts lawmakers to realize the same thing and work with Snyder in that direction.