Snyder signs measure making ballot drives harder

The legislation limits the number of petition-drive signatures that can be collected in any single congressional district, a change that opponents say would diminish the constitutional right of citizens to initiate legislation and ballot proposals.

Lansing — Gathering signatures to qualify a proposal for the ballot will be more difficult in Michigan under one of more than 180 bills signed by term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday.

The legislation limits the number of petition-drive signatures that can be collected in any single congressional district, a change that opponents say would diminish the constitutional right of citizens to initiate legislation and ballot proposals.

Snyder said the law would "promote geographic diversity" similar to the signature-gathering requirements imposed on gubernatorial candidates filing for election. 

More: Snyder veto spree takes down GOP power play proposal, 40 other bills

The governor, set to leave office on Jan. 1, has been working his way through nearly 400 bills this week sent to his desk by the lame-duck Legislature. He signed or vetoed more than 220 pieces of legislation on Friday alone. 

Among the more than 40 bills he vetoed was legislation that would have allowed lawmakers to intervene in court cases, challenging the role of the attorney general, and a plan making it more difficult to track non-profit donors to campaigns. 

Under the new petition law, no more than 15 percent of signatures from any district could count toward totals required by the state to advance initiatives, constitutional amendments or referendums.

The legislation would require each petition sheet to include a 100-word summary and specify whether the person collecting signatures is paid or a volunteer. Organizers would be required to sort their petitions by congressional district when submitting sheets to the state and include a “good-faith” estimate of the number of signatures from each district.

As recently as Thursday, an East Lansing economist — who opposed the November 2018 ballot petitions legalizing recreational marijuana, established an independent citizens' redistricting commission and made a slate of changes to voting rules in Michigan — urged Snyder to veto the legislation.

Those who initiated those laws had the right to do so and identified issues of importance to the state, said Patrick Anderson, who worked on Michigan’s 1992 term limits ballot campaign and helped write a 2006 initiative to repeal the Single Business Tax.

"I urge you to veto it, and record your sentiments for doing so, so that this and future legislatures are reminded that they may not trample on the rights the citizens reserved to themselves, regardless of how angry they are about how those same citizens voted in the most recent election," Anderson wrote. 

Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement released late Friday that she appreciated Snyder's veto of the legislative intervention bill, but was concerned by his approval of other measures indicative of "partisan gamesmanship," such as the petition legislation and a bill that would curb state departments' ability to make rules stricter than federal standards. 

"I hope the new Republican leaders in the Legislature are ready and willing to work together to get things done in a way that positively impacts the people of Michigan," Whitmer said.

Among the other bills Snyder signed Friday, was one he once vetoed at the start of his eight years in office. The bill from state Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, prohibits state agencies from adopting rules stricter than federal standards without presenting to lawmakers the "clear and convincing" need for the more stringent criteria. 

Snyder vetoed a similar bill in 2011 but backed Cole's iteration because it addressed concerns that led to the veto in 2011. Noting that his administration had eliminated more than 3,000 unnecessary rules, Snyder said: "it is appropriate for state agencies to take extra care in justifying regulatory decisions when adding rules." 

Another approved environmental measure, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Jim Stamas of Midland, modifies cleanup criteria for hazardous substances at contaminated sites across the state. Supporters contend it will help get properties back on the tax roles by clarifying and speeding up the cleanup process.

Under the legislation, cleanup requirements depend on toxicity values from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System. If IRIS has no toxicity value for the substance, the bill identifies other sources for those benchmarks in order of precedence or allows the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to develop criteria.

Opponents, including 82 DEQ employees who penned a letter to Snyder, argued the legislation would tie the hands of departments from adopting criteria unique to Michigan’s environment and remediation needs.

In a letter sent to Snyder earlier this month, the DEQ employees cited the governor's plea to employees after the Flint water crisis to “raise to the highest levels, including my desk, any situation that you feel threatens the health or safety of the people of Michigan.”

Snyder said little about the bill Friday afternoon as he signed it. 

A scaled-plan to deregulate small Michigan wetlands, streams and inland lakes gained Snyder's signature after changes to the initially controversial bill brought the DEQ on board and brought some conservation groups to neutral. 

Introduced in an effort to limit department oversight and overly punitive fines for private property owners, the legislation was scaled back from deregulating wetlands on 10 acres to five acres and then to five acres with various exceptions for rare or imperiled wetlands. 

The legislation also requires the DEQ to cite specific provisions with which an application does not comply when denying a permit and requires the DEQ to produce a search warrant or owner consent to enter someone's property. 

One bill Snyder signed earlier in the day will increase reimbursement rates for health care providers that perform sexual assault examinations and provide related services, which could cost the state up to $1.5 million a year.

Another bill will allow the state to distribute money from the Sexual Assault Victims' Medical Forensic Intervention and Treatment Fund to organizations that demonstrate “immediate capacity” to provide required services, not just entities that already do.

“Survivors of sexual assault deserve access to medical resources that will help them find healing and justice,” Snyder said in a statement. “These bills enhance access to medical forensic examinations and other critical health care services, and I’m proud that Michigan continues to strengthen support for survivors throughout our state.”

The governor also continued to sign pieces of a long-debated plan to improve school safety in the wake of fatal shootings in other states.

Lawmakers did not include any firearm regulations but instead sent Snyder a package that will create an Office of School Safety, stiffen penalties for threats of violence, require additional officer training and mandate development of school emergency plans.

One new law will establish a 10-year felony crime for making a threat against students or teachers that includes an "overt" action with intent to carry it out.  Another measure creates a School Safety Commission within the Michigan State Police that will recommend best practices.

Michigan legislators previously approved $58 million in related funding for the current fiscal year, including $25 million in school safety grants.

Snyder earlier this week signed a bill amending the Michigan Open Meetings Act to allow school boards to discuss security planning in sessions that would be closed to the public.

Snyder also signed a bill that would establish an A-F grading system for public schools in Michigan, assigning schools a letter grade in categories such as English and math proficiency, growth in English and math scores, and high school graduation rates. 

Opponents said the plan would stigmatize schools with high student-poverty rates and to an ever-changing state accountability and evaluation system. 

The letter grade system will make it easier for parents and students to evaluate schools, Snyder said, and "enhance the information parents receive and empower involvement in their children's education."

An unrelated measure he signed Friday will require people or groups asking for public election records to provide their full name, address and contact information.

The public records requirements were inspired by a mysterious August request from someone who identified herself only as "Emily" and asked local clerks across the state for copies of ballots and accompanying materials from the November 2016 election.

Another election-related package of bills approved by the governor establishes enabling language needed to implement Proposal 3, which would allow for same-day voter registration, straight-ticket voting, no-reason absentee voting and regular election audits.

Opponents have said the legislation would limit access by requiring residents to visit a local clerk's office to register close to or on election day. But supporters countered not many potential voters will need same-day registration thanks to automatic registration provisions in the proposal. 

Snyder also signed off on legislation that would guarantee fireworks could be legally shot off 12 days a year, decreasing the time frame from the current guarantee of 30 days. Additional days would be left up to the discretion of local governments.