Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

November 29, 2012

Phil Power: Reform in 'lame duck' world

The Legislature opened its 2012 "lame duck" session this week. Where's that phrase come from, anyway? Well, it was first applied to a down-on-his-luck stockbroker, since an injured duck that cannot keep up with the flock is an easy target for predators.

In the political world, lame ducks are something else again: Officeholders who were not re-elected in fall elections but whose terms do not expire until the end of the calendar year. Lame ducks are in a peculiar position: Their short life in office limits their continuing power, but as they do not have to face the consequences of unpopular votes and so are relatively free to make (ahem) "principled" choices.

So how and where will the ducks fly this year? I spent a couple of days in Lansing last week, nosing around to catch up on the gossip about the coming lame duck session. Some findings:

n The possibility of so-called Right-to-Work legislation (also called "Right to Work for Less" by opponents) is sucking almost all the oxygen out of the capitol. A bunch of Republican heavyweights, mostly business types from the west side of the state, are fiercely lobbying legislators to take quick advantage of big GOP majorities in both the House and Senate and pass it once and for all.

Other Republican lawmakers — those who have to face future elections — are squirming. If they vote "yes," they most certainly will be the objects of fierce opposition from Democrats and their allies in organized labor come election time. If they vote "no," they almost certainly will face opposition in primary elections in 2014.

Most Democrats have no such worries; they're against RTW, which would mean abolishing the union shop, and that's that.

Not surprisingly, lots of people are trying to find pathways out of this vise. Some are advocating "Right to Work Lite," a measure that would affect only public employees. I didn't hear much support for the version. But a variation of this that seems to be attracting a fair amount of attention would exempt police and firefighters.

Not wanting to see a repetition of the political explosion that erupted in Wisconsin after the Legislature there passed and Gov. Scott Walker signed anti-union legislation, Gov. Rick Snyder has said, repeatedly, that RTW "is not on my agenda." Fair enough, but my sources all say that if the Legislature passes RTW in some form, he has little choice but to sign.

In hindsight, it now looks as though organized labor — and especially United Auto Workers' President Bob King — overreached badly in deciding to put Proposal 2 on the November ballot, a proposal that would have placed collective bargaining rights squarely in the state constitution.

Voters turned it down decisively. Physicists talk about "Newtonian Dynamics," in which one action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Put in less fancy words, one overreach almost always leads to another, from the other side.

n Turning to another topic — The Detroit City Council and Krystal Crittendon, the city's top lawyer, are doing themselves — and maybe the city — no good with the folks who run Lansing.

They've turned attempts by the state to play nice via the Consent Agreement into a sham, slow-walking or killing attempts at reform and voting repeatedly against attempts to get the city out of financial chaos. Now it appears Detroit is nearly out of cash and facing the reality of payless paydays for employees.

The sense I get is that it's not a matter of "if" the city goes into Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but "when." This represents a big change in attitude from six months ago, when people were still somewhat hopeful things would work out. Today, some people are arguing bankruptcy would be a far better solution than death by slow strangulation by racial politics and city employee unions.

My guess is what's going on right now is wholesale maneuvering by all — Mayor Dave Bing, council members, Gov. Snyder, State Treasurer Andy Dillon — to avoid being blamed when the city, indeed, goes bust.

n Talk of political reform — clamping down on the cottage industry of petition signatures for hire that facilitated the burst of ballot proposals, for example — was strong just after the election.

Turns out at least eight other states have enacted restrictions on government-by-amendment, although most lawyers I talked with said constitutional protections to freedom on speech in the U. S. Constitution would likely prevent a complete ban.

I wouldn't be surprised if the political reform talk turns serious after the turn of the year. Michigan's campaign reporting requirements are a joke, and the injection of millions in anonymous special interest money into the races for state Supreme Court was offensive to any conception of clean politics.

That's unlikely to happen in this session; I doubt anybody wants to drop political reform into a pond filled with lame ducks.

But you may be sure of hearing a lot of strangled quacking coming out of Lansing over the next couple of weeks.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.

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