How state lawmakers are making sure you can’t repeal their laws

Oct 28, 2011

In Michigan, voters are allowed to overturn laws they don't like. This is how it works: you try and get enough signatures to get a referendum to repeal the law on a ballot. If a majority of voters vote against the law... it's repealed. But there's a catch: laws that have appropriations attached to them cannot be repealed by voters.

Just this week, Michigan Radio reported on a proposal that would drastically alter the state’s no-fault auto insurance law. The House proposal includes a $50,000 appropriation that protects the measure from a voter-led ballot initiative.

This is the fourth time this year Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol have added appropriations to a controversial bill to keep it referendum-proof.

I spoke with Rick Pluta, Lansing Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, about this cunning, political maneuver. He’s been keeping an eye on this story for months.

Why We Should Care

For some, the words, “referendum,” “appropriation,” and “voter-led ballot” aren’t that important; in fact, maybe they just sound like more of the same insider politics. But, Pluta explains it this way:

If you’re a voter who does not think that anything the legislature does should ever be challenged, I guess you would consider [this] not too terribly important. But, if you do think that [the right to vote against a law in a referendum] should be preserved… then you might find the whole thing to be a little devious.

Referendums: A History

Michigan’s constitution created the referendum power for voters to repeal laws that they think the legislature should not have passed. But, the State Constitution also includes an exemption. The exemption is for budget bills. This is so that, “the state’s ability to pay its bills and maintain its credit rating and things like that would not be compromised, but that was the only exception,” Pluta notes.

Appropriations Expanded

Interesting enough, the bills that lawmakers have attached appropriations to so far this year have all been pretty controversial bills. It’s a cunning way to make sure that unpopular laws cannot be repealed by unhappy voters. Understand, though, this is not the first time that lawmakers, in both parties, have used this political maneuver. What’s newsworthy, now, however, is the fact that it’s being used with such frequency.

Three Referendum-Proof Laws

There have been three bills, so far this year, that the legislature has passed, and Governor Snyder has signed into law, that have had appropriations attached to them.

“The first one, and it was done early this year, was the new law that eliminates the price-tag requirement in retail-stores… that every product on every shelf has to have its own price tag. Another [bill] was the tax overhaul that included enacting an income tax on pensions. And, [the third bill] was the new political district maps… the district maps that set up the lines for Congressional and legislative seats,” Pluta explains.

$50,000 for Brochures?

Certainly, there are times when it makes sense to add money to a bill. Sometimes, appropriations are needed to implement a new law. But, as the Michigan Public Radio Network’s Laura Weber reported earlier this week, the $50,000 appropriated in the no-fault auto insurance overhaul currently being debated in the state House was going to be used for the printing of brochures. I asked Pluta if this was a fair-use of money… or just pure politics:

There are certainly instances where legislation is passed where it makes sense to put funding into the measure… But, what… we’ve got here [is lawmakers] putting money into legislation ostensibly for one purpose, but everyone knows the real reason is to make sure they cannot be challenged via referendum at the ballot box.

As I mentioned earlier, Rick Pluta has been covering this story from the state Capitol for months. You can find his initial report here.