The following article appeared in the Sept. 27, 2002, edition of the MIRS Newsletter.

It should be noted that this article was written, three questions were assured of appearing on the Michigan ballot in November. Ultimately, a fourth, the proposal by the Coalition for a Healthy Michigan had been cleared to appear on the ballot as Proposal 02-04. Look for a more detailed look at that proposal in future editions of A Deeper Look.

Some people welcome ballot proposals as opportunities to express their votes directly – a basic democratic exercise. Others see such proposals as troublesome and confusing exercises for which it is difficult to prepare because of the lack of adequate and reliable information about their meaning and impact.

Michigan is one of only 14 states that has a constitutional provision for all three direct democracy elements that were part of the populist movement active in the United States around the late 1890s into the early 1900s. These three provisions include the initiative, referendum and recall. While these provisions were products of the “Progressive Era” and included in Michigan's constitution of 1908, citizens have continued since then to add additional direct democracy provisions that limit the authority given elected representatives.

Initiative and referendum were among the Populist Party platform provisions in 1892 and, within a generation, were incorporated into law with support of one or both of the older/major parties.

The initiative procedure assures that if an adequate number of registered voters sign petitions proposing new laws or constitutional provisions, these matters will be put before voters at a statewide election. This is the ability for citizens to enact laws directly. In doing this neither the legislature nor the governor can block the citizen effort.

The referendum procedure assures that if an adequate number of registered voters sign petitions proposing to repeal or override laws enacted by their elected officials, these matters will be put before voters at a statewide election. This is the ability for citizens to repeal laws directly. Neither the legislature nor the governor can block referendum efforts.

Proposal Number 1 (02-1) on this November's general election ballot is a referendum issue. Current law allows for “straight party” or “straight ticket” voting. Under a new law enacted by the legislature late last year Michigan voters would be prohibited from casting a single vote for all the candidates of one political party.

In order to preserve the right to vote straight party, citizens opposed to the ban enacted by the legislature and governor have gathered enough petition signatures to require a vote on this act. On November 5 Michigan voters will have a chance to vote to ban straight party voting (voting YES) or continue the straight party option (voting NO). If the majority of voters cast a NO vote they will have overturned the legislature's ban and restored the right to cast a single vote for all candidates of a single party.

There is no good reason to support the law enacted by the legislature. Nolan FINLEY, The Detroit News Editorial Editor, identified the action as “crassly political in motivation. The GOP resents the straight-ticket habits of die-hard Detroit Democrats and fears the practice hurts their candidates at the bottom of the ballot. ...Voting rules shouldn't be tinkered with to gain a political advantage for the ruling party” (The Detroit News, Sunday, December 16, 2001). In the 2000 election 78 percent of Detroit voters cast straight-ticket ballots. No one has yet put forth a reasonable argument for why elimination of the voting option exercised by such a large number of voters strengthens Michigan democracy.

Prohibiting straight party voting does create some problems, however. Michigan voters have had the opportunity to vote straight tickets for 110-years. And, although many Michigan voters enjoy splitting their votes among the candidates of different parties, thousands of them choose to vote straight tickets in every election. No one is forced to vote straight party, however. Nothing is gained by eliminating that opportunity.

Democracy is better served by strengthening our political institutions – including our political parties. Longer lines at polling places will surely result from passage of this restrictive measure. It is difficult enough to get citizens to the polls. Restrictions on voting that will slow down the process only provide one more barrier to increasing voter participation in elections.

Proposal Number 2 (02-2) on November 5 is neither an initiative nor referendum proposal. It is a bond proposal to permit the State to borrow $1 billion to fund improvements in sewer infrastructure statewide. Article IX, Section 15 of the constitution requires that, in order for the state to borrow money for long-term periods of time, the borrowing must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the Legislature and a majority of the voters at a general election. The proposal passed the Senate on a vote of 35 to 0 and passed the House on a vote of 91 to 7.

Michigan faces a major and costly water quality problem. Throughout the state local wastewater treatment facilities are proving to be inadequate. As a result each year billions of gallons of untreated or inadequately treated sewage is mixing with Michigan water. Public Sector Consultants issued a recent report analyzing the problem and concluding: “[A] majority of Michigan sanitary sewers and many waste treatment facilities ... will soon be more than 50 years old. Without a major investment, sewer maintenance costs will continue to rise, and frequent system failures are inevitable.” (Public Sector Consultants, Lansing, MI, Managing the Cost of Clean Water: An Assessment of Michigan's Sewer Infrastructure Needs.)

Putting a cost to this problem, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments reported in April of last year, that: “Over the next 30 years, an additional $14-26 billion will be needed to maintain and improve the region's sewage collection and treatment systems. These estimates grow to $29-52 billion when inflation and interest charges on borrowing for capital projects are considered.” (Page vii, .) Testimony before the Legislature indicated that the problem is not limited to southeast Michigan. Inadequate and outdated wastewater treatment facilities exist throughout the state.

In addition to the need outlined by these budget projections, Michigan citizens have been made aware of the problems in other ways. Perhaps most prominent have been increasing periods of time when lake beaches have been closed to swimming and rivers closed to fishing because of the overflow of sewage into those bodies of water. Metro Beach on Lake St. Clair, for example, frequently has been closed this summer due to sewage overflows raising the bacteria level. Clean drinking water also is at stake without upgraded sewage treatment facilities and water drainage programs. Urban areas are especially vulnerable because of the massive wastewater volume. However, smaller communities and rural areas face significant problems from limited water treatment systems and over utilization of aged septic systems.

If this bonding proposal is approved the state would be able to issue up to $1 billion in bonds to be used to address local water pollution control problems. The proceeds from the bond sales would be available to local units of government to upgrade, rebuild and maintain both septic systems and general wastewater treatment systems. Most estimates see this increase in funds for state loans to local units as a step toward challenging Michigan's problem, not adequate to address the entire problem of wastewater management.

Delaying to address the problem will both further jeopardize Michigan's ability to assure clean water resources and make the eventual costs even greater. We don't save taxpayer money by ignoring or delaying action.

Michigan historically has not ranked terribly high in comparison to other states in measuring our overall indebtedness. That picture seems to be changing somewhat in recent years. In a 1997 paper discussing state government debt, Gary S. OLSON, Director of the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, concluded: “The state-by-state comparison of debt outstanding leads to two primary conclusions. The first is that Michigan is still a relatively low debt state. ... The second conclusion is that the level of per capita state debt outstanding in Michigan has increased at a significantly faster rate than the national average over the past six fiscal years. This has resulted in Michigan's ranking in per capita debt outstanding increasing from 36th among the states in FY 1990 to 25th in FY 1996.” In the year's since 1997 state debt has continued to increase ahead of state spending.

It is reasonable to question the proposal in the context of the current Michigan budget crisis. According to the Senate Fiscal Agency, debt service on the bonds would begin in fiscal year 2003-2004, at $8 million and increase by $8 million annually for 10-years. Where do we find the money for debt service and repayment on the bonds? This question should be asked of the proposal's backers so that voters will know more about the bond proposal's impact on the state's fiscal picture in both the short and longer terms.

Proposal 3 (02-3) facing voters on November 5 is an initiative proposal to assure state employees have a constitutional right to collective bargaining with a binding arbitration option to resolve disputes. This provision will, if enacted, give state classified employees the same bargaining rights that now are granted to some state employees – state troopers, police officers and fire fighters.

Fortunately Michigan has a long history of assuring workers the right to organize and bargain. This right rests comfortably alongside the constitutional creation of the Civil Service Commission to assure that state employment is based on merit and not political patronage. In recent years there have been examples of state employees negotiating with the “State Employer” only to have parts of the agreements reached be changed arbitrarily by the Civil Service Commission. This compromise with the integrity of the collective bargaining policy is inappropriate and does nothing to prohibit patronage employment.

The proposal on the ballot is simple and direct in putting before voters the very same bargaining opportunity for other state employees that police and fire personnel already have. This system now has been tested and found to serve the parties well. Rather than resort to work stoppages or strikes to resolve disputes in bargaining, the proposal creates an arbitration option – again the same provision as that utilized by the state in negotiating with public safety personnel.

State employees deserve the guarantee of effective bargaining rights just as any other workers. Proposal 3 will assure that protection of their rights while assuring state services will not be jeopardized.