Oct. 24 2012 12:00 AM

Unions, Republicans, environmentalists, utilities, EFMs and a billionaire: Ballot proposals 2012

The Legislature no longer represents the people of Michigan. That’s the inevitable implication of next month’s bed-sheet ballot to bypass lawmakers with five proposals to change the state Constitution, plus a referendum on a law jammed through the Legislature on a party-line vote.

Michigan is a purple state with predominantly centrist voters: Voters consistently lean Democratic for president and U.S. Senate; the last Republican to win Michigan’s electoral votes was George H.W. Bush in 1988; the last Republican elected to the Senate was one-termer Spencer Abraham in 1994. Michigan has alternated between Republicans and Democrats in the Governor’s Office since 1970. 

In contrast, the Michigan Legislature has been very conservative over most of the last decade thanks to gerrymandered districting, often inept Democratic Party leadership and a 2010 election in which the Tea Party dominated Republican primaries — and steamrolled Democrats.

(The impact of gerrymandering is best seen in the state Senate. The 2010 vote went 52-48 for Republicans, but the GOP won 68 percent of the seats.)

So if the Legislature isn’t representative, the Constitution offers the people a remedy through ballot proposals. A referendum allows a public vote on a law, but the will of the people can be readily thwarted by the Legislature (medical marijuana being the latest example). An amendment to the Constitution provides additional protection against legislative mischief.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the state’s legal foundation is changed often. In the 49 years since it was adopted, a total of 69 amendments have been proposed and 32 were adopted. Since 2004, six of seven proposed constitutional amendments were ratified by the voters, including defining marriage as between one woman and one man.

Putting an issue on the ballot costs a lot of money. Constitutional amendments required submitting 322,609 valid signatures; the one referendum proposal (challenging the Emergency Financial Manager law) required 258,087 signatures. Even a true “grass roots” campaign requires upwards of $150,000 to get on the ballot. This year, as much as $30 million is being spent on mostly deceptive and some downright deceitful television and direct mail advertising.

This year’s proposals fall into one of four categories:
-Unions vs. Republicans
-State control vs. local control
-Environmentalists vs. electric utilities
-Billionaire Matty Moroun vs. just about everyone else

Union-backed proposals

Three of the six proposals made it to the ballot with the financial and manpower clout of unions: Proposal 1 (A referendum on Emergency Financial Managers), Proposal 2 (protecting collective bargaining) and Proposal 4 (empowering home health care workers).

Proposal 1: Democracy and finances

Do you think democracy is too inefficient for dealing with emergency situations? Should some local governments be run by the governor instead of locally elected officials? If so, you’ll want to vote “yes” on Proposal 1, which would — if passed — ratify the Gov. Rick Snyder’s emergency financial manager law (PA 4). (A “yes” vote reinstates the law; a “no” vote repeals it.)

The proposal is the closest thing to a grass-roots effort appearing on this year’s ballot. Public-sector union AFSCME succeeded in getting the proposal on the ballot for less than $200,000, thanks to the work of hundreds of mostly volunteer circulators. AFSCME is especially unhappy with an EFM’s power to unilaterally cancel labor agreements.

Appointed by the governor, emergency managers become virtual dictators for all operations of a financially challenged school district, city or township. They have absolute power to cancel contracts, dissolve local government boards and sell public property. If Lansing ever had an EFM, he or she could unilaterally decide to sell the Lansing Board of Water and Light or city parks.

Four cities and three school districts are operating under the control of an EFM. Most recently, the Muskegon Heights School District EFM decided to turn the entire school district over to private charter school operator Mosaica Education Inc., effectively eliminating the city’s school board. In the process, every schoolteacher and administrator in the district was fired, but given the opportunity to work for Mosaica — for less money and reduced benefits.

Proponents argue that extraordinary fiscal crises require extraordinary responses. Without a strong EFM, they say distressed local governments could end up in federal bankruptcy court, which effectively makes the bankruptcy referee (appointed by the district court administrator) an EFM. They note that those bankruptcies likely would hurt the state’s credit rating, raising costs of borrowing for all state and local governments.

Opponents contend that the EFM law goes too far, placing a premium on expediency over democratic rule. There is no local accountability or oversight: the emergency manager has dictatorial powers on all matters relating to budgets. Our system of government is based on the principle of “checks and balances” — the EFM law has neither.

Proposals 2 and 4: Collective Bargaining and Local Control

Organized labor played a much larger role in promoting two constitutional amendments than it did on the EFM referendum. Proposal 2 is a direct response to actions of the most anti-labor governor and Legislature in recent state history. It extends to all public employees the same collective bargaining rights already guaranteed in the state Constitution for Michigan State Police officers and sergeants and restores to local officials decisions on what issues can be negotiated. It also short-circuits future assaults on the bargaining rights of workers in the private sector.

Organized labor has been under attack since the 2010 electoral tsunami, which gave conservative Republicans total control of state governments throughout the formerly union-friendly Midwest. Led by the secretive right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, legislatures are limiting and even banning collective bargaining for public employees — and following the lead of southern states in banning union shops.

Dozens of laws passed in Michigan over the last 20 months attack the take-home income of public workers and retirees at the state and local level. Death by a thousand cuts, you might say. Benefits achieved through bargaining over the last five decades are being slashed, impacting both current and future retirees. One change going into effect this month doubles the health insurance premium paid by retirees. For a married couple, the change will reduce state pension checks by about $1,800 a year. (State pensions average about $19,000 annually before deductions.) Similar newly mandated deductions are costing retired teachers as much as an additional $5,000 per year. The impact is especially significant in mid-Michigan because of the high concentration of government retirees.

Labor had the option of attempting to strike down each of the laws through referenda, but that would have meant putting dozens of proposals before the voters, something that was financially and politically impossible. A single constitutional amendment serves the same purpose, plus it prevents the Legislature from circumventing the vote of the people down the road.

The governor and Legislature respond that state and local governments cannot afford to keep promises made to employees and contend, more broadly, that locking collective bargaining into the Constitution ties the hands of future legislatures to respond to changing conditions. (Actually, that’s the point of the proposal.)

The opposition to Proposal 2 has walked the line of truth to the point of being offensive. Claims that passage of the amendment “could” prohibit schools from firing employees with criminal records (even sex offenders), or that it would allow for public employee strikes or eliminate safety rules for school bus drivers, border on the absurd. The “sources” for the claims are primarily the anti-union right-wing Mackinac Center and Attorney General Bill Schuette. Neither can be considered an objective source.

The real motive is unstated by both sides: stopping anti-labor Republicans from 1) restricting the issues that can be negotiated between public employers and unions; 2) taking away local control of local government; and 3) turning back on Michigan’s pro-union history by enacting “right to work” legislation.

Although Snyder has said right to work legislation isn’t on his agenda, he has a history of signing laws that hadn’t been on his agenda. He likely will have the opportunity to sign a right to work law if Proposal 2 is defeated. A promise by Snyder to veto that bill could be the final nail in the coffin for Proposal 2, but don’t hold your breath.

Proposal 4 similarly protects collective bargaining rights, this time for some 43,000 home health care workers. 

The proposal builds on the Michigan Quality Community Care Council, created during the Granholm administration, to provide training and perform background checks on home health care workers. The same agreement designated home health care workers as public employees, allowing them to bargain collectively. That became a multi-million-dollar bonanza for the Service Employees International Union, which was recognized as the bargaining unit for 43,000 home-care aides.

The Legislature pulled funding for the MQCCC in 2011. A 2012 law took away the “public employee” designation and the right to bargain collectively.

Opponents, led by the anti-union, pro-Republican Mackinac Center, are against Prop 4 because it can force home health care workers to pay a union to negotiate on their behalf. Backers note that a union can be decertified by a vote of workers if the majority is dissatisfied with union representation.

Is Prop 4 a sweetheart deal for SEIU? No doubt. Is it a necessary response to a Legislature intent on crushing public employee unions? Indeed — and that’s the real issue with Prop 4.

Proposal 3: Green energy, electric rates and jobs

Proposal 3 requires Michigan’s electricity providers to get serious about alternatives to coal-based electric generation. A 2008 energy law, heavily watered down through the efforts of lobbyists for the two utility monopolies (CMS and DTE), leaves Michigan with one of the nation’s weakest laws promoting green energy: 10 percent of electric generation from renewable sources by 2015. Renewable sources include wind, solar, hydropower and biomass. The Michigan Public Service Commission reports that utilities will be able to meet that goal.

Thirty other states have renewable standards exceeding 10 percent; Iowa (with its expanses of windy cornfields) already gets 23 percent of electricity from renewables.

Proposal 3 changes the target to 25 percent by 2025; directs the Legislature to create incentives so that Michigan businesses and workers benefit from  the construction of new facilities; and caps annual rate increases for renewable energy at 1 percent. The proposal gives the state Public Service Commission the power to extend or waive the 25 percent requirement if it becomes apparent the goal won’t be met in time.

Michigan spends $1.7 billion annually importing coal. Proponents correctly note that redirecting most of that spending to Michigan companies would be a boon to the state’s economy. A Michigan State University study projects the change will create 94,000 new jobs for the state. 

Many of Michigan’s 76 coal plants are nearing the end of their useful lives and must be replaced. (The Lansing Board of Water and Light will close its Eckert plant when it completes the new natural gas cogeneration plant in Reo Town.) Decisions are being made now on replacement plants that will provide our electricity for the next half-century.

The campaign against Proposal 3, funded almost exclusively by the two utilities, attempts to scare people into “no” votes by projecting massive rate increases if it passes. According to the Michigan Truth Squad, an arm of the nonpartisan Center for Michigan, the claims are exaggerations at best. The primary sources quoted by opponents in their ads are the Mackinac Center and a news story that quotes officials of CMS Energy. The latter is especially deceptive, implying that the quotes are the result of independent reporting by the newspaper rather than simply reporting on the views of CMS. 

The Public Service Commission says electricity generated from renewables (about 6 cents per kilowatt hour for wind and about 7 cents for biofuels) costs far less than electricity from new coal plants (about 13 cents per kilowatt hour), and slightly less than natural gas combined-cycle plants (just under 7 cents per kilowatt hour). Ironically, Consumers Energy CEO John Russell, speaking at the dedication of the utility’s first wind farm near Ludington, has said renewable energy is “clean, reliable and affordable for Michigan.”

Proponents note that wind and solar installations are “fueled” for free and have minimal operating costs. The amendment backs up the financial claims by limiting rate increases for renewables to 1 percent a year.

The nonpartisan Citizens Research Council notes: “It is likely that the cost of electricity in Michigan will increase over the next 10 to 12 years with or without adoption of the proposed amendment.”

Neither side in the debate discusses the environmental impact of accelerating the use of renewables. While no electrical generation is environmentally benign, there is no question that reducing the burning of hydrocarbons (via coal, oil or gas) to generate electricity is a net plus for the environment.

Proposals 5 and 6: The Billionaire´s ballot proposals

Two proposals on the ballot are the product of one billionaire’s efforts. Matty Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, used his massive wealth to put Proposals 5 and 6 on the ballot, spending millions in mostly inaccurate, misleading and sometimes dishonest advertising.

Proposal 5 would require a two-thirds vote in both the state House and Senate to enact any tax increase. Opponents, who come from across the political spectrum, say this has the potential to destroy many government services in the state. The proposal cynically builds on the mistaken belief that taxes are going up in Michigan when the opposite is true: Since 2000, the effective state tax rate has gone down 10.3 percent.

Prop 5 would make it possible for 13 members of the state Senate to stop any tax increase. It would make it impossible to raise money to fix Michigan roads, improve K-12 education or lower college tuitions.

It would even make tax reform impossible. There is widespread agreement that the personal property tax, assessed against a business’s fixed assets and inventory, needs to be replaced. The tax itself can be repealed or lowered, but it would take a two-thirds vote to replace the revenue with another tax.

Moroun’s chief ally for Proposal 5 is national anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist. The proposal is opposed by just about everyone else: dozens of organizations including Republican-leaning groups like the state Chamber of Commerce, Business Leaders for Michigan, West Michigan Tea Party and Michigan Farm Bureau — as well as every Democratic-leaning organization.

Proposal 6 is the ultimate in “special interest” change. It is a blatant effort by Moroun to protect his international bridge monopoly in Detroit. He has backed the effort with millions in advertising that fact-checkers unanimously conclude are mostly lies or distortions.

Moroun’s claim that the bridge could cost Michigan taxpayers untold millions is bogus, according to all independent analyses. According to the Citizens Research Council, “Michigan state government is not responsible for any costs of the new bridge or related projects.”

Prop 6 is opposed by the auto manufacturers (which rely on daily parts shipments between Michigan and Ontario), the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and dozens of other business and labor interests who all concur that Snyder negotiated a superb deal for the taxpayers of Michigan: A free bridge that will be built by Canada and paid for through user fees.

The UAW has curiously not taken a position on the bridge amendment. The Detroit Free Press recently reported about talk that Moroun and the UAW had secretly discussed a deal in which the union would support Prop 6 in exchange for some Moroun cash in support of the UAW-backed Proposal 2. 

UAW President Bob King has brushed aside the allegations without totally denying them.

Support comes mostly from politicians who have received significant financial support from Moroun, and the Teamsters local, which represents workers at the Ambassador Bridge. Tom Shields, the spokesman for the pro-bridge coalition, rightly asks: “Is there anyone supporting Proposal 6 who is not on the Moroun payroll?”

Want to know more?

The Citizens Research Council is an excellent source for detailed, unbiased information on all six proposals: election.crcmich.org. The resources include detailed analyses, PowerPoint presentations, the full proposals and the 100-word descriptions that are on the ballot. Additional objective analysis is available from the nonpartisan Center for Michigan: bridgemi.com/ballot-mania-page/