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Some laws shielded from voter referendum

By Rick Pluta, Michigan Public Radio Network


LANSING, MI – The Michigan Constitution gives people the right to challenge laws they don't like by calling a voter referendum. The only laws immune to a referendum are measures that appropriate money. The framers of the constitution did not want to put the state's ability to pay its bills at risk. But some critics complain the Legislature is misusing that power to make some controversial measures referendum-proof.


To get a referendum on the ballot, opponents of a law have to gather signatures of registered voters equal to five percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. This year, that would be 163,410 names.

Will Lawrence and Maegan Howang roam downtown Williamston gathering petition signatures. They are part of a campaign trying to call a referendum on Michigan's new law that gives sweeping authority to emergency managers appointed to run local governments in severe financial trouble.

Some laws cannot be challenged by voters -- any laws that appropriate money. The framers of the state constitution felt that allowing budget measures to be challenged would threaten the full faith and credit of the state - that is, confidence that Michigan can pay its bills.

Typically, policy bills do not appropriate money. But, every now and then - and it is rare -- a policy bill does include an appropriation. Courts have ruled, reluctantly sometimes, that makes a law referendum-proof. That's happened a couple of times since the beginning of this year on some controversial measures proposed by the Legislature's Republican majorities and signed by Governor Rick Snyder. The law repealing the requirement that most retail items carry their own price tag, and the new tax on pensions are both immune to a referendum. Bills up for final votes in the Legislature this week that redraw the state's congressional and legislative districts will also be referendum-proof.

"The fact that the Legislature and the governor are deliberately taking that right away from the citizens shows their contempt for the democratic process and the will of the citizens," says Will Lawrence, the petition circulator.

Lawrence says that's not the way it's supposed to work. "I think it's a deliberate tactic to really disenfranchise the citizens of a crucial check that we have here in our system in Michigan."

Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger defends the practice that makes bills referendum-proof, and notes that both Republican and Democratic legislatures have put appropriations into policy bills.

"We're being responsible," Bolger says. "If you look at the tax bill, there's significant expenditures that needed to be put in place to implement the tax bill. If you look at the redistricting bill, which is before us now, and you look back to the 80s when the Democrats controlled the process, they also appropriated money because the secretary of state has work that she has to do."

But this year, Democrats say the Legislature's GOP majorities are stepping up the practice and abusing their appropriations authority.

"We've got a series of bills that have been enacted this year that have got these riders on them that prevent the people of Michigan from overturning those laws through a referendum," says State Representative Jim Townsend.

Townsend is proposing an amendment to the state constitution. It would make every law subject to a referendum except for a traditional budget bill that has as its primary purpose funding state departments and agencies.

"The constitution provides protection so that we do not appropriations bills, true budget bills, because you can't run a state if you're overturning the budget all the time, but for everything else, the constitution says if people want to overturn a law, they should have the ability to do so," Townsend says.

To become part of the state constitution, the Townsend amendment would require the support of super-majorities in the House and the Senate to go on the ballot - meaning Democrats and Republicans would have to agree to put the question to voters.

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