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Lennox: Downsizing the Michigan Legislature won’t help

Dennis Lennox

You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

A group of special interests in the state capital is so frustrated with the Legislature that it’s floating a constitutional amendment to eliminate 43 seats from the 110-member House of Representatives and 38-member Senate, according to reports from the insider news service MIRS.

By all accounts this effort is in its earliest stages, though it could get very serious very quickly. That’s because Lansing’s well-funded special interests on both the political right and left are masters at circumventing the normal process and buying petition signatures to implement their agenda via highly orchestrated ballot questions.

It’s safe to assume the proposal would be tied to a so-called part-time Legislature, which in reality is nothing more than a cap on the number of days the people’s voice can be heard in the halls of state government. (The executive and judicial branches would remain full time.)

Reforming the machinery of state government isn’t a bad thing. Far from it, actually.

However, the proper venue for reform of this magnitude is a constitutional convention — not a ballot question, as we saw in 2008 when the Michigan Democratic Party and its union allies tried and failed a rewrite of the state constitution that would’ve been nothing more than a partisan and ideological hijacking of state government.

This will hopefully spark a long overdue discussion on the structure of Michigan government.

And it isn’t just the Legislature that’s dysfunctional.

State government in Michigan is in desperate need of modernization as the third decade of the 21st century approaches.

The governor, who it is or their political party, needs greater control over departments and agencies. Too many in positions of authority are career civil servants, many of whom are able to obstruct, if not outright block, the priorities of the governor and Legislature.

Moreover, there are too many boards and commissions — the natural resources commission, agriculture commission, transportation commission, board of education and civil rights commission come to mind — that operate with little direct accountability. Each one of these entities should be abolished and replaced with a cabinet-level secretary, appointed by the governor on the advice and consent of the state Senate.

Other reforms could solve the longstanding constitutional crisis involving the purported autonomy of Michigan’s 15 public universities, which routinely flout transparency and open records laws that were duly passed and enacted into law.

Then there’s the issue at hand. Even if the motives of those floating a downsizing of the Legislature are pure, removing seats is hardly the right prescription.

A better solution would be to lengthen the House’s present two-year terms to a more reasonable three years. This would also minimize the impact of largely irrelevant national issues on a state election.

This would allow representatives to roll up their sleeves and get to work, as opposed to the endless campaigning and fundraising that takes place when there is an election every other year.

Dennis Lennox is a freelance columnist.