Commentary: Drowning in Democracy

Jul 11, 2012

I hate to sound alarmist, but if all the proposals whose backers submitted signatures make it on the ballot and are approved by the voters, the result will destroy representative democracy in Michigan. Not only that, our economy will  probably be destroyed as well, and we will enter fully into the era of  government of special interests, by special interests, and for special  interests.

Michigan’s constitution is fatally flawed in one big way.  The framers thought there should be an opportunity for citizens to occasionally place a question before the people.

Their model was one that sometimes happened in an earlier, more innocent era. Dedicated groups of concerned citizens would give up their free time to collect signatures at church socials and shopping malls, and somehow get the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed for a statewide vote.

What the men and women writing the Constitution didn’t foresee was an era in which special interests would pay millions of dollars to professional canvassers to persuaded voters to sign.

During several weekends this summer, I listened to these people give wildly distorted pitches to voters in highway rest areas. People signed in many cases without knowing the meaning of what they were signing. So unless court challenges keep some of these things off the ballot, voters could be deciding six constitutional amendments on this November’s ballot. Six, plus a referendum to decide whether the Emergency Manager law should be  repealed.

The most dangerous of all of these would require a two-thirds vote of the legislature, or a statewide popular vote, to raise taxes.  That sounds wonderful, if you've been brainwashed by the we-are-overtaxed crowd. But it is a prescription for disaster.

We would have lost the Cold War had that been in place in Congress. This proposal might not have been quite as dangerous 30 years ago, before term limits. Back then, you sometimes had bipartisan cooperation. But today, we have a constant flow of new legislators, many of them ideologically dogmatic and with little or no understanding of the complexities of government.

Pass this, and say goodbye to any chance of being economically competitive in the future. Other amendments are almost as bad. One would authorize seven new casinos, which our state doesn’t need, can’t support, and would only worsen the nightmare for problem gamblers’ families. Matty Moroun has his amendment to prevent the state from building any new bridges that might interfere with his.

There’s  an amendment that would require utilities to get 25 percent of their  energy from renewable sources within 12 years, whether that is possible or  not. That sounds good, but could cause us to run short of electricity.

There is even an oddly obscure amendment that has to do with protecting the right of home health care workers to have union dues deducted from their paychecks.

The founding fathers established representative government with the idea that we would elect intelligent people to make educated judgments on complex issues for the good of us all.

Ballot proposal mania is threatening to destroy that, and prevent government from being able to intelligently respond to our needs. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.