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Why your vote on a wolf-hunt referendum might not matter

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.

So what’s the newest controversy that’s about to be protected from the nuisance of voter rejection? Well, it involves: bears, beavers, bobcats, brant, coot, crow, deer, ducks, elk, fisher, Florida gallinule, fox, geese, hare, Hungarian partridge, marten, mink, moose, muskrat, opossum, otter, pheasant, quail, rabbit, raccoon, ruffed grouse, sharp tailed grouse, skunk, snipe, Sora rail, squirrel, Virginia rail, weasel, wild turkey, wolves, woodchuck, and woodcock.

That is the list of game species that would be allowed by law in Michigan and the measure includes a million dollars – ostensibly for fish and game management. But that cool-million makes sure voters can’t reject it with a referendum. And that was done to neutralize the wolf-hunting referendum before it’s even officially on the ballot. More than a quarter of a million signatures have to be certified, which should happen in the next few weeks, and then it would go on the November 2014 ballot.

But, if this hunting bill is adopted by the Legislature and signed by Governor Rick Snyder, that referendum - even though it’s on the ballot - would be irrelevant. As we mentioned earlier, this referendum-proofing, while it’s been around for awhile, used to be rare, it was considered a little underhanded. The referendum is a right, after all, in the state constitution. But, now it’s pretty common. And, it begs the question:  is this something that’s just going to be a characteristic of the Bolger/Richardville Legislature or is this now part of the permanent culture in Lansing?

However, there is a new ballot campaign trying to end this referendum-proofing. There is a petition drive under way to amend the state constitution to outlaw this sort of thing. The Voters for Fair Use of Ballot Referendum. Fair Use of Ballot Referendum. That acronym will be familiar to fans of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

But anyway, this fight over hunting, wolf hunting in this case, is really pretty ancient. There’s a lot of politics in wildlife management. In 1996, conservation groups put Proposal G on the ballot – it gave the people appointed to the state Natural Resources Commission more clout over hunting and fishing, and it was a direct response to Proposal D, an effort to ban the use of dogs and bait in bear hunting.

In the end, Proposal G passed. Proposal D failed. And, hunters have argued ever since then that do-gooders, animal rights activists are ignoring science and accepted wildlife management practices to get their way. In 2006, a referendum struck down a morning dove hunting season. So this would bring an end to that. But animal rights groups, like the Humane Society, say this new hunting legislation is dirty pool. They collected their signatures fair and square, and the Natural Resources Commission is basically an advocate for hunters. And there is truth to that. I think it’s fair to say vegetarians are not well-represented among the happy hunters on the Natural Resources Commission.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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