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Lansing — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s surprise decision to scrap thousands of signatures and restart his part-time legislature petition drive this week has frustrated the signature gatherers as well as critics who said he has unfairly pinned his own problems on the “Lansing establishment.”

Calley’s Clean Michigan committee said Monday it has revised its petition seeking to make the state Legislature a part-time body, strengthening the language to protect against legal challenges but forcing it to toss out signatures it started collecting more than a month ago.

The move came two weeks after several young Republicans initially hired to be circulators complained they were abruptly fired.

The developments raise additional concerns about the viability of the petition drive and ability of Calley’s group to collect the 315,000 valid signatures needed to get the measure on the 2018 ballot.

The unexpected reset prompted harsh criticism from some Republicans, including longtime campaign consultant Stu Sandler, who argued Calley has run the petition drive like a “clown car.”

“He’s lashed out at people trying to help him and wasted a ton of resources and time in the process,” Sandler said. “It’s a shame, because it’s a good issue and a lot of people want to help him.”

Matthew Dobler of the Clean Michigan committee fired back, suggesting it is not surprising “that someone who is paid as a legislative consultant is opposed to cutting legislator pay.”

Sandler is a consultant for the campaign arm of state House Republicans, where House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, has endorsed the idea of a part-time legislature. Sandler also noted that Dobler asked him late last year about a job in the Legislature.

“The bottom line is these guys didn’t do their homework at all,” Sandler said of Calley’s group.

In announcing the petition drive reset, the second-term lieutenant governor and former state legislator told supporters the establishment is putting up “roadblocks” in an effort to maintain the status quo. Calley suggested changes were made after opponents tried to find “legal technicalities” with the petition.

Patrick Anderson, an East Lansing-based conservative consultant who had raised constitutional concerns over the petition language, called Calley’s characterization “absurd.”

“This is a rich, rich irony that the state’s second-highest elected official is calling a private citizen a member of the Lansing establishment,” Anderson said, noting he personally helped write language for the state’s term-limits amendment and a separate law to repeal the Single Business Tax.

‘Norm did him (a) favor’

In a June 16 letter to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, Anderson warned that Calley’s part-time proposal could weaken the constitutional power of the Legislature in at least two significant ways not mentioned in the petition, as required.

The petition would have nullified the ability of the Legislature to override a veto by the governor, said Anderson, founder of the Anderson Economic Group. He contends it also would have limited the constitutional option for the Legislature to adopt or reject bills sent to Lansing by petition drive.

Norm Shinkle, one of two Republicans on the Board of State Canvassers, had also voiced concerns about the petition language. Calley pulled his petition from the board on June 21, suggesting Shinkle had a potential conflict of interest because he did consulting work for a group opposed to the part-time proposal.

Calley “owes Norm Shinkle an apology,” Sandler said, suggesting the canvasser had pointed out a “devastating constitutional flaw” in the proposal. “Norm did him an absolute favor.”

Anderson raised other issues in a June 8 letter addressed to “citizens interested in the integrity” of the state constitution.

“I think it was embarrassing but the right move to stop circulating a doomed petition,” he said Wednesday.

The revised petition would require the Legislature to adjourn each year by April 15 — as opposed to the original plan to limit the body to meeting 90 consecutive days — unless the governor called a special session. It specifies that nothing in the proposal would “diminish the legislature’s power” under other sections of the constitution.

Committee attorney John Pirich said Monday he stands by the original petition language and called the revisions “clarifying and technical in nature.”

The new version, like the old, would roughly halve legislator pay by tying their compensation to the average earnings of Michigan teachers, pro-rated based on number of days served.

‘Caught me off-guard’

Norm Kammeraad, a conservative activist who organized the failed 2014 petition drive, said Wednesday he remains confident Calley’s group will put the issue before voters in 2018 despite this week’s setback.

“This time this thing is going to happen,” Kammeraad said. “They’re going to actually get the signatures to file. Once that happens, there’s going to be challenges coming all over Lansing from special interests. They’re just making sure that once they do that, they are going to be able to survive those challenges.”

Kammeraad’s group, which included former Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, last month endorsed the petition drive.

But some activists argue Calley used the part-time Legislature issue to burnish his conservative credentials ahead of a possible run for governor, where he could face stiff competition in the 2018 GOP primary. He has supported a part-time legislature before.

Calley launched the petition drive May 30 on Mackinac Island after running a series of online ads that talked about himself, his family and his political accomplishments, fueling speculation he would announce a gubernatorial campaign.

Shelly Gregoire, who heads up the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, said she signed up as a paid circulator for the petition drive but quit after one week because she felt the effort was mostly about Calley.

She knew Calley would announce the effort when she joined him at Mackinac Island but said she did not know his name would be on their T-shirts, on their literature and in the questions they were supposed to ask voters, including which gubernatorial candidate they would support in 2018.

“It was something that really caught me off guard,” Gregoire said. “I’m not going to get data for a politician that I don’t even want to get behind. It was offensive. It felt like we were lied to about the whole thing.”

Gregoire is now volunteering for the gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, but said she is “livid” that Calley scrapped signatures she and her friends had helped collect.

‘Sign the petition again’

James Millius, a member of Young Americans for Liberty at Hillsdale College, said he worked on the petition drive until late June, when he was offering advice to other circulators who had been fired in a mass purge. He estimates he had been collecting 30-40 signatures a day.

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that Calley or the campaign hadn’t worked out all these kinks before starting the initiative,” Millius said. “… At the end of the day, I don’t think this was about the initiative. I think it was just about testing the waters for Calley.”

Dobler said Wednesday the young people who worked on the campaign “had a vital role in spreading the message on the importance of a part-time legislature and the need to clean up Lansing.”

Clean Michigan is relaunching its petition drive with a combination of professional circulators, volunteers and grassroots activists, along with online and digital strategies to collect signatures, he said.

Restarting the petition drive will give the committee an “advantage” as it seeks to combat opposition arguments, Dobler added. The work of initial circulators “will ultimately prove very useful in allowing voters to have a say on this important reform.”

In his Monday email to Clean Michigan supporters, Calley thanked them for signing the petition.

“I know you put a lot of energy into collecting signatures and that effort has made a difference,” he wrote. “I’m asking you to sign the petition again, and have your friends and family sign it too.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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