LANSING, Mich. — In a year of political pushback and unusually sharp partisan fights across the Midwest, union anger at Republicans and general voter frustration may turn Michigan into a case study in ballot-box confusion this November.
As many as 14 ballot initiatives could be put before voters in November, adding to confusion for even the most educated followers of policy and, according to state's Republican governor, threatening the state's progress on government reforms after years of tough economic times.
Asked last week at a town-hall event about the state's ever-growing list of ballot petition drives, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder responded, "Most of them don't have a whole lot of value."
"Basically all they're doing is messing with the Michigan Constitution and trying to go backward, taking us back or making things more complicated or more expensive," he said.
Among the most prominent initiatives collecting petition signatures are a drive by unions to keep collective bargaining rights as a part of the state constitution, negating a push to make Michigan a right-to-work state; to require utilities to get 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources; and to require a two-thirds vote from the state legislature before taxes can be raised.
Like the governor, the state's Chamber of Commerce opposes several of these ballot proposals, and it has announced a new coalition of business and taxpayer groups to fight proposals they deem "an unprecedented assault on Michigan's state constitution."
"Unfortunately, there are several special interest groups trying to hack their way in and hijack the constitution for their own personal gain and to use it to go around the legislative process, and a lot of our members think we should fight this," said Jim Holcomb, senior vice president for business advocacy and general counsel of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
He calls some efforts, particularly those by public sector unions "a stifling of Michigan's reinvention" and a bid to protect their privileged position.
"A lot of these government employee unions are saying 'Oh, no, we need to reach in to taxpayer wallets further.' We see this across the Midwest," he said. "These are the battleground states in this year's election cycle where taxpayers need to step up and fight."
Thus far, no ballot initiative has been certified by the state's Board of Canvassers, said Gisgie Gendreau, spokeswoman for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.
The collected signature petitions must be approved 60 days before the election in November to appear on the ballot, and there is no telling at this point how many will succeed. The most Michigan voters have seen on a ballot in recent memory is 12 issues in 1978.
Among other efforts making their way to voters include a proposal seeking voter approval to construct a new international trade crossing; a repeal of the state's emergency manager law, which allows the state to take over an economically failing city; and a measure to create eight new casinos in the state.
Some say the wider use of referendums is the result of an increasingly polarized electorate and a greater willingness to use the populist-era tool to overturn legislators, as seen in the spate of recall elections this year in Wisconsin.
"People are anxious and frustrated and some are furious about the national situation that appears to be anti-union, anti-teacher, and anti a lot of things," observes Betty Buss of the Citizens Research Council.
"In Michigan, the fact that we have a Republican governor, a Republican legislature and what amounts to be a Republican Supreme Court has added more tensions from unions and from Democrats," she said. "I think the time is ripe and the ground is fertile now for a lot of different groups who are concerned about a lot of issues to get the state constitution changed to initiate or prevent laws."
Scott Hagerstrom, the state director of Americans for Progress-Michigan, says while voters could see fatigue at this year's polls, putting issues before people is always important.
"Certainly I don't agree with some of the things that may appear on the ballot. But you have to respect the process," he said. "Some of the political class in Lansing would rather not be bothered with public input. You see that forming. There is a campaign out there to ask citizens to vote no on everything. I think that is rather insulting to Michigan voters."
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