Part-time Legislature group seeks signatures by mail

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – One month after handing over leadership of a part-time Legislature to Republican activists, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is helping the group raise money and collect signatures for a final push to try for the 2018 ballot.

The Clean Michigan Committee said Monday it is mailing hundreds of thousands of petitions to voters across the state as they seek to collect the 315,000 signatures by a mid-January deadline. Organizers say they are “well over” half way to that mark.

A copy of the mailer obtained by The Detroit News includes a personal letter from Calley asking residents to “sign it big and bold and with pride the way John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence.”

The petition would roughly halve legislator pay and end what is now a 12-month session by April 15 of each year.

Legislators “will spend more time back home, away from the State Capitol, in the real world, living under the laws they passed, speaking with the constituents that are impacted,” Calley wrote in his letter to voters.

The Portland Republican helped launch the petition drive May 30 at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference but stepped down on Nov. 10 as he prepared his campaign for governor, which he formally announced Nov. 28. His part-time Legislature letter was dated Nov. 27, one day before Calley began his gubernatorial campaign, but did not reach some voters until late last week.

Calley is competing for the Republican nomination against Attorney General Bill Schuette, state Sen. Pat Colbeck and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines.

The lieutenant governor has faced some criticism for the petition drive, which is now being led by Tom McMillin, a state Board of Education member and former state legislator. McMillin and former Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema are also making robocalls to encourage signatures.

Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley blasted the effort Sunday on Twitter, warning voters not to be “fooled by the last ditch effort to put a reckless part-time Legislature plan on the 2018 ballot.”

The proposal would weaken the Legislature and consolidate power in the executive and judicial branches of state government, Studley wrote, calling it a non-partisan issue because “it won’t really matter which political party controls the House or Senate.”

The late push came after the petition drive hit multiple snags, including questions over anonymous donors and early use of a signature gathering firm headed by a man previously convicted of election fraud in Virginia.

Calley reset the petition drive in July, scrapping thousands of signatures that had been already collected to revise the language, a move he said would strengthen it to protect against potential legal challenges.

The proposed constitutional amendment would generally require the Michigan Legislature to complete its regular session each year by April 15, as opposed to the original version that sought to limit the Legislature to 90 consecutive session days.

It would cut legislator pay by tying their salaries and benefits to average teacher compensation, pro-rated to reflect a shorter work year.

Campaign finance reports indicate the committee had raised $887,174 for the petition drive through Oct. 20. The “Fund for Michigan Jobs,” a non-profit that does not disclose donors, had contributed $666,000. Other top donors included businessman William Parfet, who kicked in $100,000.

McMillin, the Rochester Hills Republican who is now leading the petition drive, said in a statement that he witnessed “how much time and money is wasted in Lansing” when he served as a state legislator.

“We are putting this decision directly in the hands of voters by mailing hundreds of thousands of petitions across the state so they can decide if they want to put the issue on the ballot and give voters the option of making this important change like most other states,” McMillin said.

Michigan is one of 10 states with some form of a full-time legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers here earn an annual base salary of $71,685, the fourth-highest rate in the country.