The big question: after Governor Snyder says he'll sign Right to Work... what happens next?

Dec 9, 2012

What a week it was.

Shouting and chanting filled the halls and rotunda of the State Capitol building on Thursday as Right to Work bills made their way into the state House and Senate. And, more protests are likely this week as the Legislature will take what are likely the final votes to send this so-called “right to work”-  or “freedom to work” bills as they’re known to some supporters and “right to work for less” if you’re on the union side – to the governor’s desk.

And Snyder will almost certainly sign them. This week, within the space of 72 hours, right-to-work went from “not on my agenda” to “on THE agenda” to Governor Snyder embracing the issue… even after months – years, really – of saying he didn’t want to take up such a divisive issue.

Here at It’s Just Politics, we’re wondering if it’s about time that the phrase “not on my agenda” has to be retired. The Governor has used the “not on my agenda” phrase before – over the issue of repealing the motorcycle helmet law and domestic partner benefits – and, yet, when these issues actually reach his desk: he signs them.

Political watchers are waiting to see what
Political watchers are waiting to see what
Credit Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration.

So, the question this week is: what changed in the Governor’s mind? What made him give-in? Was it simply a matter of inevitability? Right-to-work had just kind of taken on a life of its own after voters knocked down Proposal Two and a lot of interest groups were arguing that that could be interpreted as a referendum on “right-to-work” by Michigan voters; some Republican lawmakers took it as a sign that now was the time to try and introduce the issue. Maybe the governor just had to make the best deal he could once it became clear he was getting a right-to-work bill no matter what.

It certainly makes his life less complicated vis a vis a potential Republican primary in 2014. But it does complicate his general election prospects when this will almost certainly be used against him.

And we know once the governor signs the bill, that’s not the end of it. The supporters of right-to-work will go from offense to defense. Although, supporters of Right to Work have certainly taken one critical preemptive step: putting a million dollar appropriation in the bill, making it referendum-proof; immune to voter rejection. As we’ve talked about before on It’s Just Politics, spending bills cannot be overturned in a voter referendum. It’s how Republicans protected the repeal of the item pricing law, tax overhaul bills and the pension tax. In fact, the only controversial legislation, really, that wasn’t referendum-proofed was the emergency manager law… and we saw what happened to that.

But unions and Democrats have other options. There’s talk of trying to recall some Republicans, like the Michigan Education Association did last year with state Representative Paul Scott. That also potentially improves the Democrats’ chances of taking over the House, the Senate, or both in 2014. But recalls have a pretty spotty record of success (unless you’re the lawmaker trying to keep your seat, that is).

There’s also talk of more ballot questions. Opponents can’t put a referendum on the ballot, like they did with the emergency manager law. But they can run a petition drive for a voter-initiated law, one that would replace the right-to-work law. They could make another run at a constitutional amendment. Not like Proposal Two, which was widely seen as an overreach, too sweeping. Proposal Two would have repealed or threatened something like 170 laws, including some child safety laws, and that was used effectively very effectively against Prop 2. But what would happen if they drafted a simple, clean amendment – a sentence or two? Something that’s a lot more easily explained and defended (because it’s harder to get a “yes” vote on a ballot question than a “no” vote).

No matter what, it’s a very pretty safe bet that "right-to-work" is going to be hanging around for a couple of years. The first fight of the 2013-2014 election cycle is taking place right now before our eyes.