Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 15, 2010

Voters to decide on constitution revise

Net Byline

---- — LANSING (AP) — Once every 16 years, Michigan voters are automatically asked whether they want to authorize the rewriting of the state constitution.

It's that time again. Proposal 1 asks voters if they want to set up a convention to redo the state constitution voters adopted in 1963. The current constitution is the fourth in state history. Voters overwhelmingly rejected proposals to rewrite it in 1978 and 1994.

Most of Lansing's political power structure, including the Michigan Democratic and Republican parties, opposes calling for a new constitutional convention.

A coalition that includes the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan State AFL-CIO and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association cites estimates that a convention could cost the cash-strapped state $45 million. Supporters of the convention say it won't cost nearly that much and could lead to long-term savings through a leaner government.

Citizens Protecting Michigan's Constitution also said a constitutional convention could leave important issues addressed in the constitution — such as taxes and term limits — unresolved for two years while the constitution is being rewritten. That could tie the hands of the new governor who takes office Jan. 1 and leave new state leaders "effectively handcuffed" as they wait for a constitutional convention to finish its work.

State Sen. Tom George, a Republican from Kalamazoo County's Texas Township, calls the political and special interest groups opposing the convention "the coalition for the status quo." George is trying to generate support for a rewrite but acknowledges it will be difficult.

"This is an opportunity to change the direction of the state," said George, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor this year. "It's a chance to make the government more efficient and more effective, and to update it to meet new technologies."

The proposal would allow for the convening of a constitutional convention in 2011. Once a new constitution was drafted, citizens would be asked to vote on whether they want to accept or reject it.

Supporters say a rewrite would prompt a serious discussion about whether Michigan needs a full-time Legislature or could survive with a less costly, part-time version. That move alone could offset costs of the convention, George said, while prompting a review of other possible money-saving ideas.

Opponents of a constitutional convention say changes to reflect evolving social and economic conditions can be made by the state Legislature and voters without a significant rewrite of the basic government document.

The current constitution has been amended 31 times in its 46 years, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Among the most recent changes agreed to by voters were loosening of restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research in 2008, banning racial preferences in public university admissions and government hiring in 2006 and setting the definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman in 2004.

Government structure isn't often addressed through constitutional amendments but it does happen. Michigan voters approved term limits for the governor, state lawmakers and other officials in 1992.

If voters reject the constitutional rewrite, it will automatically appear on the ballot again in 2026.