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Commentary: Referendum madness

If everyone who is trying to get a referendum on something on the ballot this fall succeeds, every conscientious person may end up having to spend half an hour in the voting booth in November.

That’s a  bit of an exaggeration, but not much. There is a campaign to get a ballot referendum on the state’s emergency manager law -- and another to recall the governor himself.

The unions are collecting signatures to try to get a constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining for workers in both the public and private sectors.

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge want an amendment that would effectively prevent any new bridge from being built.

Some casino interests want an amendment to allow a flood of new casinos. There’s a group that wants to legalize marijuana for everybody. And last week, we learned of a major new effort. A group called the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity wants an amendment that would ban any state tax increases whatsoever …unless approved by a statewide vote of the people, or a two-thirds super majority in the Michigan House and Senate. This amendment, which is certain to be popular with the Tea Party crowd, is being pushed by something called the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity, rumored to be linked to the Koch brothers, David and Charles. They have used vast amounts of their oil fortune to support conservative and radical anti-union and anti-tax causes.

There may be other possible amendments and referenda petitions out there that I don’t know about, and the legislature can always choose to put additional questions to the voters.

Not all of these things will make it to the ballot, but some will.  We have been seeing a surge in ballot questions in recent elections, partly because of the growing power of interest groups and the growing weakness of the legislature.

And while that sounds like direct democracy, I think that most of the time, it is a bad thing. What it means is that little by little, the governor and legislature become less important, as the foundations of representative democracy are eaten away.

The amendment that would ban tax increases is especially bad, because it would cripple legislative powers. We have representative democracy for a reason: Most of us are too busy to give most issues the consideration they need. I have no idea, for example, what agriculture policy should be. The founding fathers’ idea was to elect representatives to do this for us.

If we didn’t like the job they did, we would elect new ones.  Amending the constitution was seen as a last resort.

That’s still the case at the federal level, where our Constitution has been amended only 17 times in the last 221 years. But it is ridiculously easy to amend the Michigan Constitution, or at least to get an amendment on the ballot, especially if well-funded interest groups are behind you.

In my view, we do need two new amendments. One abolishing term limits, and another making it much harder to amend the constitution, and somewhat harder to put proposed legislation before the voters. That way, our elected representatives would have more incentive and ability to do their jobs.

And the rest of us would be far better off.

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