Traverse City Record-Eagle

Election 2010

October 24, 2010

Op-Ed: A better state constitution?

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a liberal Democrat, has something in common with Tom George, one of the state senate's most conservative Republicans: They both think it is time for a Michigan to hold a convention and try to write a better state constitution.

Robert LaBrant, chief lobbyist for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a champion of conservative economic interests, has something in common with Alma Wheeler Smith, who most agree is the most left-wing member of the Michigan senate: They are both firmly opposed to a con-con.

But the voters will be the ones to decide. Proposal One on the Nov. 2 ballot will ask every Michigan voter if they want to call a convention to revise the state constitution.

Proposal One, by the way, didn't get put on the ballot through a petition drive or legislative action. It appeared automatically.

Under the current state constitution, which was narrowly adopted by voters in 1963, the people are asked every 16 years whether they think it is time to have a new constitutional convention.

Voters overwhelmingly said no by huge margins the first two times they were asked, in 1978 and 1994. But this time, the result is expected to be much closer. There have been increasing concerns that the present system isn't working, for two main reasons — term limits and the fact that the present Constitution is too easy to amend. It is relatively easy for out-of-state groups with money to spend to pay for signatures and get an amendment on the ballot.

So far, the Michigan constitution has been amended more times since 1963 than the U.S. Constitution has been since 1787.

Polls show the voters may be leaning against a con-con, in part because of a barrage of anti-con-con advertising launched in recent weeks by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Reasons for supporting or opposing a con-con are numerous. For example, Michigan's current constitution forbids a graduated income tax. Liberals would like to change that; conservatives would not. Anti-abortion activists would like to make it harder to terminate pregnancies; pro-choice voters will bitterly oppose that. Some want a part-time or unicameral Legislature, or one that is paid less.

But it isn't clear what would happen at a con-con, or what will happen at the polls. There are a vast number of undecided voters, and even more confusion about this would mean.

So here's a little guide to what would happen if voters say yes.

Q) If Proposal One is approved, then what?

A) First, a round of elections to pick the 148 delegates who would write any new constitution from scratch, or, more likely, revise the old one. Every voter would get to select two — one from their state House district; one from their Senate district.

There would be two elections; a primary in February and a final election in May. Delegates will run as Republicans and Democrats, but independents could certainly try as well.

Q) Can politicians now in office be delegates?

A) No. But former elected officials could run.

Q) What happens after May?

A) The delegates would convene in Lansing on Oct. 4, 2011, and get about the business of writing a new constitution.

Q) Will they be paid?

A) We don't know. Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land has been urging the Legislature to pass a series of bills detailing how a con-con would function and delegates compensated, etc.

But the lawmakers did nothing.

Q) How much would this cost the state?

A) Nobody knows, but probably not very much when compared to the present $44 billion dollar annual budget.

The Senate Fiscal Agency estimated the cost of a con-con at $45 million; supporter say that is probably considerably exaggerated.

Q) How long would they have to write a new constitution?

A) As long as they needed. Last time, it was done over two years. When they are done, a date will be set, and the people will vote on whether or not they want to adopt the new constitution.

Q) If Proposal A passes, is the current constitution automatically dead?

A) No. It stays in effect until voters adopt a new constitution — if they ever do. If the people don't like what the con-con produces, they can vote it down, and the current constitution stays in effect for the foreseeable future.

Q) Where's a good place to learn more about how this might work, and more of the issues surrounding a con-con?

A) The non-partisan, non-profit Citizens Research Council of Michigan has posted a thorough examination of the issue on their website, www.crcmich.org.

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