Virus throws uncertainty into Michigan ballot campaigns

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The coronavirus and restrictions on public gatherings have thrown uncertainty into three ballot proposal campaigns seeking major changes to Michigan law.

On Thursday, one of them, Coalition to Close Lansing Loopholes, which sought to overhaul state lobbying policies, announced it was suspending its efforts and refocusing on 2022.

This is an example of the petitions that Fair Tax Michigan hopes to circulate in support of bringing a graduated income tax to the state. The group launched its effort on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020.

"We set out to change the culture in Lansing by enacting lobby reform, but we never imagined that overnight the entire world would change," the group said in a statement. "COVID-19 has disrupted lives across the country and world and has significantly altered face to face interaction.

"This has made the already difficult task of collecting more than 425,000 signatures to put lobby reform on the ballot in 2020 a relatively impossible one."

The coalition has been led by the liberal group Progress Michigan and aimed to ban lobbyists from buying anything of value for state lawmakers, among other reforms. The campaign needed to collect 425,059 valid petition signatures by July 6 to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November — a difficult task even without restrictions that bar public gatherings of more than 50 people.

The group will redirect its efforts to "building a campaign that can hit the ground running in 2022," according to a statement.

But another ballot proposal campaign, Fair and Equal Michigan, which aims to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan, is pressing on and changing tactics to try to deal with hurdles the virus creates.

The Board of State Canvassers approved petition language from Fair and Equal Michigan on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. The group seeks to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan.

The campaign sent out an email to supporters this week asking them to fill out online forms to receive petitions by mail. The supporters could then sign the petitions and send them back, according to the message.

"This approach will help Fair and Equal Michigan continue to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures they need while respecting the social distancing that this moment calls for," the group said in its email.

Fair and Equal Michigan got an earlier start than the lobbying campaign did and it has to collect fewer signatures — 340,047 — because it's seeking to initiate legislation, not amend the constitution. But the deadline to do so is May 27.

Organizers of a third ballot proposal effort, Fair Tax Michigan, are waiting to see if state officials loosen requirements in light of the health emergency to help those trying to gather petitions, said Eli Isaguirre, the campaign manager.

Under Fair Tax Michigan's constitutional amendment, state lawmakers would have to enact a law reducing the income tax rate for individuals making less than $175,000 a year by 2022. They also would have to create tax rates that increase based on income levels and produce more than $1.5 billion in additional net revenue by 2023.

The campaign sent a letter this week to House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, asking them to develop legislation to allow Michigan residents to electronically sign petitions.