Two years ago today, the Reform Michigan Government Now ballot
initiative died in a Lansing
courtroom. The sweeping proposal to rewrite the state Constitution — reducing the size of the Legislature, eliminating judicial positions, lowering the
salaries for elected officials — was controversial from the moment it was announced.
At its peak it found a lot of support from a populace that had grown weary of
an overly burdensome state government; at one point its backers claimed 70
percent of likely voters were in favor, but its opponents suspected partisan "trickeration" — in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways RMGN seemed to consistently favor
Democrats over Republicans.
Their suspicions were borne out when a Mackinac Center intern stumbled across
a PowerPoint presentation on a UAW
website, laying out a plan to meld
partisan rules intended to give Democrats an advantage with some modest
good-government and small-government reforms. The presentation frankly stated
that the point of the plan was to cement Democrats in control of state
government, and then went on to describe
RMGN precisely. Up until that point RMGN's backers were able to present themselves
as bipartisan reformers, but when the Mackinac Center made the PowerPoint
available to the general public the game was up.
That was two years ago. RMGN is, mercifully, gone and Michigan voters are
still free to choose between two flawed but more-or-less equally matched
political parties. Two years later, the RMGN campaign looks, if anything, even
more reckless, and its partisan
backers even more cynical.
The union movement was heavily behind RMGN; Michigan AFL-CIO
President Frank Gaffney was among its most vocal supporters, and the UAW was
lining up behind RMGN as well — the regional website where the PowerPoint was
found urged its members to give their support.
We now know that while UAW officials were contemplating
months of campaigning for RMGN, their own industry was approaching a breaking
point. In the summer of 2008, as support for RMGN reached its peak, the
national economy was well into a recession. The UAW and the automakers were in
the process of implementing a ground-breaking agreement to create massive trust
funds (called Voluntary Employee Benefit Associations, or VEBAs for short) to
provide for retiree health care. At the same time, two out of the big three
domestic automakers were approaching bankruptcy. GM was deciding whether or not
to sell off its Hummer line for operating cash, and also announcing plans to
cut costs by $10 billion and borrow another $5 billion. In September, just a
month after RMGN met its demise, GM and Chrysler would attempt to negotiate a
merger in hopes of avoiding insolvency. Those talks would fall through and in
December the two would receive more than $17 billion in government loans to
keep them in business. It wouldn't be enough to prevent bankruptcy.
Since then, the UAW has brought in a new president, with Bob
King replacing the retiring Ron Gettlefinger. Yet the UAW has not really come
to terms with conditions in the auto industry. So far King has yet to show any
interest in reconsidering the UAW's ideological outlook, which has mainly
served to blind it to changes in the automotive marketplace, even as he asserts
that his union is ready to serve as a valuable partner for businesses.
For its part, the progressive movement in Michigan seems not to have lost its penchant
for misdirection — or to have gotten any better at it. Last month Michigan Capital
Confidential reported that Oakland
County Democratic Political Director Jason Bauer had been active in creating a
"Tea Party" and getting its candidates on the ballot. Petition signatures for the "Tea
Party" were gathered by Progressive Campaigns Incorporated, the same company
that collected petitions for RMGN. The "Tea Party" appears to have been set up
to confuse conservatives and/or free-market supporters, drawing votes away from
contenders in competitive districts and clearing a path for big government
backing incumbents to hold on to power.
Reform Michigan Government Now has been dead for two years,
but its cynical spirit lives on in a union movement that is distracted from
serving its members by its political ambitions, and a governing class that is
willing to resort to deception to retain power.
Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in
Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted,
provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.