referendum-proof

Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

We really hadn’t heard much about referendum-proofing since back in December and the Legislature’s now-infamous “lame duck” session. But the wait is over. We now have a new controversy and a new referendum-proofed bill before the state Senate which could be voted on as early as next week.

We’ve talked about referendum-proofing before on It’s Just Politics, it’s when the Legislature wants to make sure a controversial bit of business can’t be reversed by voters using the referendum, lawmakers put a little spending in it. That makes the legislation an appropriation, and to protect the full faith and credit of the state, the Michigan Constitution says that’s the only kind of law that can’t be challenged by a referendum.

Referendum-proofing has been going on for a long time but, it’s really picked up steam in the last three years. The Republican-majority ruled state Legislature now regularly makes its controversial work immune to referendums – the repeal of the item pricing law, the income tax on pensions, and the controversial right to work law, just to name a few.

Strangely, the Legislature did not referendum-proof the first emergency manager law it passed in the last session, and after voters rejected it last November, turned around and passed a new emergency manager law with a referendum-proofing appropriation in it.

Matthileo / Flickr

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 it's repealed. But there's a catch: laws that have appropriations attached to them cannot be repealed by voters.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.