Gary Kramer / AP)
Lansing— The state increasingly is embroiled in a debate about whether controversial issues such as wolf hunting and mandatory union dues payments should be decided by elected officials reflecting their constituents’ wishes or directly by the people at the voting booth.
Democratic politicians and some advocacy groups argue citizen voices are being silenced by Republican legislative maneuvering, approval of laws that pre-empt statewide votes and, in one case, re-enactment — with some changes — of a law voters rejected.
The controversy has swirled for more than two years around issues ranging from state-appointed emergency managers to the minimum wage.
It’s likely to surface again this week when the House meets for a rare summer session. The chamber may vote to uphold Michigan’s wolf hunt in the Upper Peninsula by passing a petition-initiated proposal from pro-hunting groups.
While House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, hasn’t said a vote will occur when the House assembles Wednesday, Democrats are bracing for what they describe as another GOP assault on the rights of voters to decide such issues.
“The constitution guarantees the people the right to create or modify laws on their own through ballot initiatives,” said Robert McCann, press secretary to Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing.
“And while, yes, the Constitution also may technically allow the Republicans to undermine them as they are, it’s hard to justify that it was the intent of the drafters of our Constitution to allow that,” McCann said.
But Lansing attorney Richard McLellan, who often is involved in such issues, said state constitutional provisions allowing citizens to petition for new laws don’t mean every proposal has to go to the ballot.
The framers, McLellan said, just “wanted people to have the right to start the (law-making) process. I get a little irritated with these Democrats who’d do exactly the same things for the same reasons” if they had the legislative majority.
Wolf hunting in focus
Wolf hunting is the latest focal point of the running dispute between the Republican legislative majority and the Democratic minority over the ethics of state constitutional initiative and referendum provisions.
Michigan’s Constitution gives registered voters the right to petition for a new law through an initiative or seek, through a referendum, a statewide vote that could affirm or reject a law passed by the Legislature.
Democrats are joined by labor unions and groups such as Planned Parenthood and Keep Michigan Wolves Protected in blasting the GOP for using those provisions to its advantage.
In one case, the Republican majority included a $1 million appropriation in a right-to-work law it hastily passed in December 2012, presumably making it immune to a referendum. The right-to-work law prohibits mandatory union dues.
Under the state constitution, laws that appropriate funds usually cannot be overturned by voters.
McCann charged that Republicans “didn’t want the people of Michigan to be able to weigh in” by voting on the right-to-work issue. “That, in and of itself, is offensive,” he said.
But McLellan argued that the GOP majority and groups circulating petitions are using constitutional tools just as they’re intended to be used. Some just aren’t happy with the outcomes, he said.
And should the House pre-empt two Nov. 4 anti-wolf-hunting ballot propositions by passing the initiative on Wednesday, McLellan predicted, hunting opponents “will be back next year with a (proposed) constitutional amendment, banning wolf hunting, that’s not subject to a referendum.”
The initiative would affirm that the Natural Resources Commission will continue deciding which animals will be hunted as game. House passage of the measure — which the Senate approved earlier this month — would make it law.
The commission already approved one wolf hunt, in which hunters killed just over half a 43-wolf quota last fall.
More important for the pro-wolf-hunt GOP legislative majority, House action also presumably would thwart two anti-wolf-hunting November ballot proposals backed by a group called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.
That’s why leader Jill Fritz on the wolf protection group’s website urged people to lobby legislators before they act:
“Michiganders who care about wildlife and their right to vote should tell their legislators to vote ‘no’ on the opposition’s initiative.
“Michigan’s recent wolf hunt was based on a pack of lies. Politicians and bureaucrats cannot be trusted, but voters can.”
Lawmakers twice have approved laws to allow wolf hunts.
And Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, with financial backing from the Humane Society of the United States, twice responded by collecting enough petition signatures for referendums on those laws.
Then a group called Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management — Michigan United Conservation Clubs and other groups that favor hunting — collected enough signatures to petition for the proposed law now up for a House vote.
The constitution says lawmakers can pass such a citizen-initiated proposal into law within 40 days after the petition signatures are authenticated or let it go to a statewide vote, which would put it on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Most experts agree that Keep Wolves Protected’s two proposals, calling for referendums on the first two Legislature-passed wolf hunting laws, will become moot if the House finalizes the pro-hunting measure.
Bolger’s spokesman Ari Adler said the House speaker still is deciding whether to have the House vote on the wolf hunt proposal or let it go to the ballot.
Either way, Adler said, Bolger believes the Legislature “has followed all constitutional and legal guidelines related to citizen initiatives placed before it, as did those who have spearheaded the initiatives through their constitutional right to do so.”