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L. Brooks Patterson: GOP plan makes petition drives 'almost impossible'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson

Lansing —  Advancing Republican legislation to toughen Michigan petition drive rules would make it “almost impossible” for citizens to initiate legislation, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said Wednesday, voicing opposition to the plan.

Patterson is among a growing number of prominent Republicans who have spoken out against the proposal, which would limit the number of signatures that could be collected from voters in any single congressional district.

“First of all, it violates the Michigan Constitution, which gives us that right in the first place,” Patterson told The Detroit News. “The rules are already sufficiently tough and the hurdles are sufficiently high. We don’t have to go back and make it almost impossible (for citizens) to petition the government.”

The Senate Elections Committee advanced the measure Wednesday in a 4-1 vote, but with the lame-duck session expected to end Thursday, leading Republicans on the panel said additional changes are likely before any action on the floor.

Under the revised legislation, petition groups seeking to qualify for the ballot could collect a maximum of 15 percent of their signatures from any one congressional district. Additional signatures would not be invalidated but would not could towards the total required by the state. 

Patterson has helped lead four petition drives, beginning with a parole reform proposal in the early 1970s and continuing with efforts to reinstate capital punishment and a 2007 initiative to repeal the Single Business Tax.

“I couldn’t have gotten around the entire state on a very limited budget,” he said. “I think (the legislation) was designed to make it tougher, but I think they more than exceeded their goal.”

The business-backed proposal is widely seen as a response to a handful of successful petition drives this year that resulted in ballot campaigns that drew big donations from out-of-state liberal groups. The GOP-led Legislature also enacted and then quickly weakened two other initiatives to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour and mandate employers provide paid sick leave.

“When you have lax rules, that invites out-of-state interest, who don’t necessarily have Michigan’s interests at heart, the ability to hijack the process,” said John Bursch, an attorney representing the West Michigan Policy Forum, a business advocacy group.

Like many Republicans, Patterson said he voted against all three measures that made Michigan's Nov. 6 ballot. "I was in the minority it turns out, but at least I had a chance to express myself," he said.

Under the legislation, petition groups could collect no more than 15 percent of their signatures from any congressional district. Under a revised plan up for a vote Wednesday in the Senate Elections Committee, any signatures above that mark would not be invalidated but would not count toward the total required to advance an initiative.

Groups submitting signatures to the state would have to submit a "good-faith estimate" of the number of signatures collected in each district. 

The requirement would ensure “there’s more statewide buy-in” on petitions to advance initiatives to the Legislature or ballot, said sponsoring Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, who lives in a rural Montcalm County where circulators rarely focus collection efforts.

But several prominent conservatives who worked on past petition drives have criticized the measure since last week’s approval in the House, including Bill Rustem, a former top aide to Gov. Rick Snyder, who on Tuesday called on the governor to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Patrick Anderson, who worked on the Michigan’s 1992 term limits ballot campaign and helped write a 2006 initiative to repeal the Single Business Tax, told senators he thinks the “clear purpose” of the House-approved legislation is “to restrict the ability of citizens to initiate laws.”

“Furthermore, it does it in a way that imposes harassing obligations, and threats of legal sanction, against ordinary citizens as well as organized political campaigns,” said Anderson, who estimated provisions in the proposal would make petition drives roughly 30 percent more expensive.

While he opposed proposals on this year’s statewide ballot, Anderson defended the process and argued the legislation is a clear violation of the Michigan Constitution, which reserves for citizens the power to enact and reject laws through petition drives.

“You don’t have the power,” he said. “If the Senate tries, I will join those who will ask for it to be struck down (in court), and I believe it will be.”

Less controversial provisions of the bill would require paid petition circulators to file an affidavit with the state before collecting any signatures, which would otherwise be invalidated. And petition sheets would have to indicate if the circulator is paid or a volunteer.

Organizers would be required to sort petitions by congressional district when submitting them to the state for review. They also would be required to “certify” to the Secretary of State's office that no more than 15 percent of the signatures came from any one congressional district.

A provision requiring organizers to sort petitions by congressional district when submitting them to the state for review would be "a nightmare," said Ed Rivet, who formerly worked for Right to Life of Michigan and helped lead several successful initiatives. Signatures are currently collected by county, some of which have multiple congressional districts, he said.  

And the provision that would cap signatures in any congressional district to 15 percent of the total collected “is a disenfranchisement” to any additional voters in that district, Rivet said. “I just don’t think our voices should be silenced by district.”


Twitter: @jonathanoosting