by Jack McHugh

The term “threat to democracy” usually evokes images of shadowy terror cells, or sociopathic foreign dictators. But government “of, by, and for” the people faces a more subtle threat from well-meaning special interests right here at home.

In two recent Michigan ballot questions, special interests sought to corner for themselves a massive stream of public dollars. Statewide, Proposal 4 would have embedded in the Michigan Constitution a mandate to disburse three-quarters of Michigan’s annual $300 million in tobacco lawsuit settlement proceeds to specific health care providers and special interest groups.

The Constitution contains a few general spending provisions, such as those for local governments and higher education, but no requirement to disburse money to named private organizations. This unprecedented proposal clearly represented a raid on the state treasury.

Another raid was directed at metro-Detroit property owners. For the second time, elites tried to jam a .5 mill “regional” arts tax past voters in Oakland and Wayne counties (which comprise 34 percent of the total state population). Two-thirds of the $45 million annual revenue was to be divided among 17 particular public and private organizations. A new arts council would take two-percent off the top -- some $900,000 a year for an arts bureaucracy that would lobby for even more taxpayer dollars.

The sponsors of both proposals spent big on outrageously misleading and melodramatic TV and radio ads. They only needed to fool 50 percent +1 voters for just one day. Given widespread public ignorance regarding state and local government, special interests stand a good chance of pulling off such coups with emotion-driven mass marketing campaigns.

Their chances are improved by a characteristic of all wasteful government programs: Concentrated benefits go to a few highly motivated special interests, while costs are so widely dispersed that individuals lack sufficient incentive to organize opposition. Opponents of Proposal 4 were outspent 3-1, and arts tax resisters by at least 10-1.

Sadly, Americans have become accustomed to such subversions of democracy, mostly to line the pockets of private actors. Examples include corporate welfare, the misuse of eminent domain to take property from one person or private organization to give to another, and the replacement of legislatures by courts as the authors of regulations on legal products like tobacco, guns, and perhaps fast food.

Regarding regulation by lawsuit, the Detroit News once opined, “Politics, not litigation, is how a free people govern themselves.” Yet these two ballot proposals show that politics too can be corrupted to subvert democracy. Given the stakes and the near-success of these proposals, Michigan can expect more such efforts to undermine the spirit of the Constitutional provision that makes citizens the final arbiter of the laws they live under.

Thanks to a sharp reversal of sentiment in the last few days before the election, taxpayers dodged a bullet on Tuesday. But the threat remains, and there are only two ways to stop the hijacking of our commonwealth by such means.

One is to weaken democracy by limiting the initiative and referendum. The political class dislikes popular initiatives. Proposal 4 has strengthened their arguments for perennial proposals to prohibit paid petition signature collectors. Given that popular initiatives brought about Michigan's two most significant political reforms of the past 25 years, term limits and tax limits, this would be a blow.

The second alternative is to overcome the ignorance and apathy which makes voters easy prey to emotion-driven media campaigns. In the long run, this is the only real solution, for without it democracy can’t work anyway.

Jack McHugh is a legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and manager of the award winning website, MichiganVotes.org.