Muddying the Michigan Constitution?

Sep 20, 2012

You’ve got a lot to decide on election day. It’s not just who will be president, or elected to Congress or to the state legislature. There will be five state constitutional amendments. Some people are concerned about whether adding a lot of Constitutional amendments muddies a document that is designed to be a clear guide for the state.

In the 224 years since it was ratified, the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. The latest Michigan Constitution is less than 50 years old and it’s already been amended 31 times.  And the people could add five more amendments on election day.

Now, if a state constitution should be something like the U.S. Constitution, you want a basic framework to put limits on government and enshrine the rights of people. The 1963 Michigan Constitution  started out more or less like that. 

Eric Lupher is with Citizens Research Council. He says the constitutional convention in the early 1960s worked to establish a fundamental, readable document that would stand the test of time… not something to change with every whim of the public, or of unions, or a billionaire.

“Right. Not a lot of detail on subject matters that get beyond those fundamental rights and get beyond limiting the powers of government (because) then you’re really getting into gray areas whether it’s constitutional in nature. That’s kind of what we find trouble with.”

Lupher questions whether we’re muddying up the Constitution with things that ought to go through the legislative process.

But, if your public policy issue becomes part of the Constitution, you can avoid the legislature and the governor blocking or changing your proposal.

“So, these people that are supporting them feel strongly about it. And the best way to lock in a policy position is to do it through constitutional amendment.”

And in Michigan, it’s not that hard. All you have to do is write it clearly and get enough signatures to put it on the ballot. Get more than half the voters to go for it and Voila! The Michigan Constitution is amended.

Barry Rabe is a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. He says if you know your idea will be opposed by the majority in the state capitol… an amendment can be an end run around them.

“The difficulty in getting legislation through in Lansing and the attractiveness of etching something into the granite of a constitution thereby making it much, much more difficult for a subsequent legislature or governor to make substantial modifications.”

In fact, not just difficult, but nearly impossible to do anything more than chip away at the edges unless you can get the people to change the amendment by voting for another amendment.

Rabe says another issue is whether voters fully understand the long-term consequences of the proposals.

“Some of these involve some very large structural changes as well as some nitty-gritty policy changes that normally would take the form of statute legislation, it does raise that question in some very interesting ways. How substantially are you modifying the Constitution?”

But, it can be argued these constitutional amendments are direct democracy in action. They’re the will of the people unfiltered by the politicians.

Fair enough.

They can still cause problems that will likely end up in the courts.

John Lindstrom is a journalist who’s been covering Michigan state government for decades for the Gongwer News Service. He says sometimes the language doesn’t match with the original Constitution, causing confusion. And sometimes the proposals themselves can be confusing.

For example, one proposal would ban any international bridge or crossing without a vote of the people. Lindstrom says opponents of that proposal say the wording is such that it could mean any bridge built in the state starting this year.

“What are we saying about that now? Are we saying that that bridge which has already been practically completed and paid for, now they have to put it up for a vote and decide whether they’re going to rescind the funding for it? There are complications there and this is why lawyers make so much money.”

There are suggestions that it’s just too easy to amend Michigan’s Constitution with all kinds of ideas that appeal to voters who are mostly informed by TV ads.

But to change it, you’d have to come up with a proposed constitutional amendment of your own.