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Lawmakers in Lansing back to referendum-proofing controversial bills

Michigan’s Legislature does not like voters checking its work. Case in point: lawmakers are back to referendum-proofing controversial legislation.

Referendum-proofing is a maneuver that’s become common in the Rick Snyder years in Lansing. If lawmakers pass legislation that has some kind of money involved in it - an appropriation - voters can’t repeal it.

Snyder used referendum-proofing heavily in his first term. Think back to the Emergency Manager Law. Voters were unhappy with it and repealed it at the ballot, only to then have lawmakers write a new Emergency Manager Law with an appropriation attached.

Decades ago, referendum-proofing was really just meant for budget bills so that malcontents couldn’t use it to ruin the state’s credit rating and its ability to pay its obligations.

But referendum-proofing has now become a common way to protect controversial laws such as extending the income tax to pensions, and Right to Work from voter challenges.

These appropriations do not exist to fund a program. They exist to inoculate a law from a voter challenge.

The newest entrant into this category: legislation dealing with local pensions and how they’re funded. Lawmakers are holding hearings on the bills this week at the Capitol.

The lineup of adversaries is classic.

On one side are the Republicans, controlling the state House, the state Senate, and the governor’s office, who say the state needs to do more to deal with big, unfunded local retirement liabilities - like the ones that helped drive Detroit into bankruptcy.

On the other side are the Democrats. And, police and firefighter unions and local governments who see this as emergency manager redux. In fact, the bills are being called “emergency manager lite.”

Under this legislation, instead of one emergency manager, a governor-appointed three-person team could step in when a community has a retirement fund that doesn’t meet specific criteria, and no plan to fix it.

This team would try to force a local unit to adopt a plan, but if they don’t, the team could force reductions in benefits, or the sale of local assets like pools, parks, and golf courses.

Now, there are plenty of Republican lawmakers who don’t want to butt heads with their police and firefighter unions - especially going into an election year. So, the votes are probably not there yet.

But GOP leaders know if they get to the magic numbers of 56 House votes and 19 Senate votes, it’s probably going to be pretty much all Republicans.

Democrats and unions only recourse at that point would be a petition drive and a ballot question challenging the law.

Hence, Republicans showing once again they know how to get in front of controversial legislation with an appropriation. You can find the one and a half million dollars in section 15 of Senate Bill 686.

We should point out, these appropriations are rarely spent. There is nothing in the state Constitution that says the money has to be used.

It doesn’t matter really if it’s one dollar or a million dollars. These appropriations don’t exist to fund a program. They exist to inoculate a law from a voter challenge.

And Democrats will fight it.

“They should have a right to take it to a vote of the people, and they’ve been using that now for years to circumvent the right of the people to actually petition their government,” House Minority Leader Sam Singh told It’s Just Politics.

Democrats will try to remove the appropriation and, in all likelihood, they will lose.

Because the Legislature’s leadership know that referendum-proofing is a technical process issue, the kind that rarely gets the public so stirred up that it becomes an actual election issue.

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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