Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 19, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Pleasing voters not a priority

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
Columnist

---- — Once upon a time, legislators felt they had to try to give voters the laws they wanted. True, once in a great while. some took stands on principle that risked angering their constituents.

But not very often. For many years, getting re-elected meant pleasing a majority of the voters most of the time.

Today, however, there’s evidence that’s less true.

In fact, in Michigan, some lawmakers seem to be trying to openly thwart the will of the people.

Gerrymandered districts mean Republicans have solid control of both houses of the Legislature, even though a large majority of the voters chose Democratic candidates last November.

Michigan’s harsh term limits mean lawmakers have no incentive to make decisions that might help them have long legislative careers. Instead, you can serve at most six years in the House, eight in the Senate … and then you are barred from further service for life.

That means there is little institutional memory, and lawmakers increasingly rely on information from lobbyists, the one group for whom there are no term limits. There’s also little incentive to defy special-interest groups; they are, after all, a major source of employment for legislators who reach their maximum length of service.

Take former State Rep. Paul Opsommer. As chair of the House Transportation Committee, he opposed a new bridge across the Detroit River, even though the project’s biggest backer was his fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Snyder.

When term limits ended Opsommer’s legislative career in December, he took a job as a lobbyist for the bridge’s main opponent, Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge. Political payoffs are seldom that brazen.

But what may be even a bigger problem is lawmakers who actively work to give the people the opposite of what they want, with little fear of voter retaliation.

“That‘s because most districts are strictly one-party districts today. The only contest comes in the primary,” said Phil Power, founder of the non-partisan, non-profit Center for Michigan.

Even worse, some lawmakers are now trying to prevent reversal of what they do by inserting a small appropriation into controversial bills. Under Michigan’s Constitution, bills appropriating money can’t be repealed by referendum.

The best-known example of this may have been the shocking way in which legislation outlawing the union shop and making Michigan a right-to-work state was rammed through in a single day during last December’s lame-duck session.

Michigan voters had shown few signs they supported the GOP’s agenda. On Nov. 6, 2.4 million voters voted for Democrats for the state house of representatives. Republican candidates got 400,000 fewer votes. But Republicans drew the district lines in a way that translated into only 51 Democratic seats to 59 Republicans.

Still, that was a five-seat gain for the Democrats. Knowing a few Republicans opposed right-to-work, the leadership and the governor shoved this momentous law through - without even a committee hearing - before the newly elected representatives could take part.

Earlier this month, there was another successful attempt to take decisions out of the public’s hands. This time, it had to do with conservation. Seven years ago, there was a public outcry over allowing hunters to shoot mourning doves.

People gathered signatures for a referendum, and 69 percent of the voters said no to hunting doves.

This time, the issue involved gray wolves, once all-but-extinct in Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. For years, they were an endangered species. But careful wildlife management has brought their numbers back from only six wolves in 1973 to an estimated 658 today. The government took the wolves off the endangered species list in January - and hunters began to demand that the state allow them to be hunted as a trophy game animal.

That provoked an outcry from the Humane Society. Jill Fritz, Michigan Director of the Humane Society of the United States, began a campaign to collect signatures for another referendum to protect the wolves.

But State Sen. Thomas Casperson, R-Escanaba, quickly introduced a bill to take the right to designate an endangered species away from the Legislature and give it to the National Resources Commission, NRC, which is appointed by the governor.

He argued that wolf hunting was necessary to protect people and livestock. However, there is no indication Michigan wolves have ever attacked any human, and it was already legal to shoot or trap a wolf endangering livestock.

Nevertheless, a bill was quickly passed. Casperson’s attempt to put appropriations money into the bill did die in committee.

However, the bill does specify that even if a referendum preventing wolf hunting gets on the ballot, the voters have no power to undo any decision to hunt them.

Snyder immediately signed the bill transferring control of what species are hunted, saying it wasn’t about wolf hunting at all, but about “sound scientific principles.“

The very next day, the NRC announced a wolf hunting season and said that hunters were welcome to kill up to 43 wolves.

The point is not that a wolf hunt is necessarily bad, or that there aren’t arguments to be made in favor of right-to-work.

The problem is that political redistricting means that a party that has been decisively rejected by a majority of voters nevertheless remains solidly in control of the Michigan legislature.

And that, thanks to term limits and one-party districts, lawmakers have little incentive to please the people - and voters have little chance to try and bring about meaningful change.

If this continues, it’s easy to imagine voters eventually becoming cynical, bitter and feeling disenfranchised. And what will that mean for democracy?

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.