Emergency Manager On Hold?

Nov 21, 2011

There’s been a lot of speculation lately about the possibility of Detroit getting an emergency manager, something almost everybody concerned says they are against, but fear is likely to happen anyway.

If it does, the manager will have near-autocratic powers, including the right to suspend, rewrite, or tear up contracts. Some think this is a painful necessity, while others think it will be the death of democracy. There’s a possibility, however, which most people aren’t considering, which is that everything may be put on hold.

That’s because a group called Stand up for Democracy is energetically collecting signatures to put a referendum on the ballot next November to repeal the emergency manager law.

And their odds seem pretty good. Now, you may remember that I predicted that such an effort to recall the governor would fail. That’s because, practically speaking, you need over a million signatures to get a statewide recall election.

That’s virtually impossible. But for a referendum, you need only a little more than 161,000 valid signatures. Some are always disqualified, but if you submit, say, a little over 200,000, you are likely to make it.

And the moment the Secretary of State’s office certifies a referendum on a bill for the ballot, that changes everything. The law would go on hold till after the vote.

Stand Up for Democracy thinks it can submit enough valid signatures before the end of December. Last week, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office told me that once signatures are submitted, they have up to two months to certify them.

So that means that by the end of February, Governor Snyder’s emergency manager law could be suspended for at least nine months. What about emergency managers already on the job?

Those in Pontiac, Benton Harbor and the Detroit public schools? Well, that seems to be a gray area, according to both the Secretary of State’s office, and various legal experts.

What also isn’t clear is whether authorizing a ballot question would automatically also prevent the governor from naming an Emergency Financial Manager under the old law, the one that has been on the books since the 1980s. I asked former Attorney General Frank Kelley, and he said it depended entirely on how the referendum is written.

So we’ll have to see. The Michigan Supreme Court has also been asked to rule on the constitutionality of the governor’s emergency manager legislation.

But the odds are overwhelming that the high court is going to uphold the law. Last Friday, the justices ruled, 4-3, that the governor’s proposal to tax pensions was constitutional.

Frank Kelley, who was Attorney General for 37 years, repeatedly ruled that a pension tax would violate the Michigan Constitution. But the judges disagreed. All four Republicans voted for the governor; all Democrats, against.

They don’t call this the most partisan state supreme court in the nation for nothing. Don’t expect the court to invalidate the emergency manager law. But regardless, the basic dilemma remains: Detroit is an impoverished city which is fast running out of cash.

Doing something about that is critical to the well-being of this entire state, no matter what tools we use to get it done.