No statewide proposals make Michigan ballot

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – For the first time in more than a half-century, Michiganians this fall won’t be voting on a statewide ballot proposal that could create a new state law or eliminate an existing one.

Barring unlikely court intervention on an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, Michigan’s presidential election ballot will be devoid of any statewide ballot measures -- something that hasn’t happened since voters approved the current state Constitution in 1963.

Presidential elections, which typically attract large numbers of voters, have included at least 50 statewide ballot proposals over the past 13 cycles, according to a review of state records.

But 2016 has proven an exception to the rule, a development experts attribute to ineffective petition drives, referendum-proof legislation and check-book fatigue from interest groups who spent big bucks on six separate ballot campaigns in 2012.

“It takes a perfect storm for no proposals to make the ballot,” said longtime Michigan political expert Bill Ballenger. “Everything has to go wrong.”

The statewide ballot was certified Sept. 9 without any proposals, Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams confirmed, and “short of a court order, the ballot will not change.”

“County clerks are finalizing the ballots and having them printed,” Woodhams said. “They will be distributed to local clerks prior to Sept. 24, when ballots must be available for absentee voters, and sent out to military and overseas voters.”

MI Legalize, a pro-marijuana group which has fought a state law and policy that invalidated petition signatures it submitted more than 180 days after collection, is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think, realistically, we’re not on the ballot,” said Jeff Hank of MI Legalize, who accused the political establishment of “railroading” the effort.

“We’re already starting to talk about the next petition, next spring,” he said. “We’ll have six months to build up support so we can start off really strong.”

Missing the ballot

MI Legalize was one of 12 separate committees that had petition language approved for circulation this election cycle, but only two submitted signatures. The state rejected both.

Other unsuccessful groups, including a committee seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing and another wanting to codify gay rights in the state Constitution, have indicated they may try again.

Legislators also can put proposals before voters but did not end up finalizing any ballot language by the Sept. 9 deadline.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, proposed a constitutional amendment to make it easier to fire “bad actor” state employees by changing long-standing Civil Service Commission rules.

The measure advanced out of committee but was not put up for a vote to the full House. It would require two-thirds supermajority support in each chamber to go before voters in the next statewide election, a tall task considering practically uniform opposition from Democrats.

“It can’t make the ballot this fall,” Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said. “...It’s still worth doing because it’s a good reform.”

Paying for signatures

It’s difficult to make the ballot without the backing of “billionaires, big business or big labor groups,” said Hank, whose activist-led marijuana committee initially tried to rely on volunteers for signature collection. They eventually raised around $1 million and hired out-of-state firms to pay circulators.

“You have to hire somebody to do this, and most of these (signature firms) do multimillion-dollar deals,” Hank said. “They’re not going to come to Michigan or anywhere else for $100,000 to get you 30,000 signatures.”

MI Legalize submitted an estimated 354,000 signatures to the state, more than the 252,523 that were required. But the state Bureau of Elections said only 146,413 were collected within a traditional 180-day window, prompting a legal fight that MI Legalize has so far lost.

The Board of State Canvassers also rejected petitions submitted by Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, a business-backed group working to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law for government-funded construction projects, after discovering a large number of duplicate signatures.

The committee paid a firm $1.35 million to collect signatures and ended up suing it for conducting what the committee’s attorney called “the worst petition drive in the history of the State of Michigan.”

The prevailing wage repeal group was never planning to make the ballot. It was counting on Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature to take up the initiated legislation if it reached them, avoiding a potential veto from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

The conventional wisdom in Lansing is groups need around $1 million to run a successful petition drive, said Craig Mauger of the non-profit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, “but this year shows that isn’t necessarily true.”

The rising price tag for petition circulators makes it more challenging for average citizens to initiate legislation and turn it into law, an option afforded them under the Constitution.

“In Michigan history, it’s only been done a handful of times by grassroots groups that don’t have a huge amount of support to pay for signature gathering,” Mauger said. “This year is just an example of how difficult it is to have a proposal you want to put before voters and actually make this happen.”

Ballot fatigue

Four years ago, committees raised a combined $154.3 million to support and oppose six ballot proposals, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The spending was for petition circulators and expensive statewide television ads and other forms of voter outreach.

Voters ended up rejecting five measures and overturning the state’s controversial emergency manager law. The Republican-led Legislature quickly replaced it with a new version of the law that gave financially ailing municipalities and school districts more options on state intervention and included an appropriation, making it immune from referendum.

A proposal that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution proved the most expensive. Unions and other supporters raised more than $23 million for the fight. Opponents also raised around $23 million, led by $9.2 million by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty Moroun” pumped millions of dollars into a proposal seeking to block planned construction of a rival Detroit-Windsor publicly financed bridge. His Detroit International Bridge Company spent more than $9 million on TV ads to support the proposal, which voters shot down.

This year, 12 different committees combined to raise less than $7 million for their petition drives.

“A lot of interest groups and so forth have just backed away and said this probably isn’t going to work, or we’re going to get overwhelmed by money from the other side and it’s not worth the effort,” Ballenger said. “I think they’re taking a deep breath to see what’s going to happen in the next few years.”