Does Michigan Need a Constitutional Convention?

Thomas Jefferson argued for a new federal Constitution every twenty years to assure that each generation would have the opportunity to choose its own form of government. Is that sound advice for the people of Michigan?

The Michigan Constitution provides for the citizens of our state to decide every 16 years whether to call a convention to propose revisions to the state's Constitution. That question will appear on the statewide ballot on November 8, 1994.

Whether to overhaul the current Constitution, 32 years after its adoption, is a matter with serious implications. Some argue that several deficiencies exist that merit consideration.

Most reformers prefer a shorter ballot, with the Governor responsible and accountable for more elements of the executive branch of state government. Michigan citizens currently elect a plural executive consisting of 36 persons including the Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, 24 university trustees, and 8 members of the State Board of Education.

Existing constitutional provisions for the partisan election of the governing boards of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and the State Board of Education, are troublesome. The nomination of these candidates at party conventions has resulted in most nominees being party regulars rather than individuals dedicated to influencing public education for the better. Rarely has a candidate for one of these offices won, or lost, on his or her own merits--usually the party carrying the top of the ticket captures most of the education positions.

Were a Constitutional Convention to be convened, it could limit the number of elected officials in the executive branch to two: the Governor and the Lt. Governor. All other executive branch positions would then be appointed by and accountable to the Governor, with the Governor accountable in turn to the voters for the performance of his appointees.

Important issues affecting the Legislature could also be addressed at a constitutional convention. For example, current provisions for having an even number of members of both the House and Senate have resulted in three elections producing ties in the number of seats won by each party. A new convention might well eliminate this possibility by prescribing an odd number of members of each house.

While good reasons like those cited above exist to support a "yes" vote in November, there are more compelling reasons to vote "no". One is our current flat-rate income tax. The Constitution prohibits a graduated income tax, which economic analysis suggests is harmful to savings, investment, and economic growth. Should those of a high-tax, soak-the-productive philosophy win control of a convention, the Constitution might be re-written to allow a graduated tax with far higher rates than the 4.4 percent we have now.

A new convention could also eliminate existing constitutional caps on property and sales taxes as a "revenue enhancing" measure. The important Headlee Amendment, which provides a limit on total state revenue and other critical taxpayer protections, might also be in jeopardy should a convention be approved. Further, it is easy to conceive of a convention bogged down in sticky moral and ethical issues. Such matters as abortion, capital punishment, prayer in school, assisted suicide, aid to parochial schools, sexual rights, and the like might appear in a proposed new Constitution to be put before the voters for ratification. If approved, only a constitutional amendment later could make changes in those provisions.

Michigan's Constitution is newer and shorter than the average state Constitution. It sets rules for governing and establishes a mechanism for determining public policy, but for the most part, it does not create policy. That's one of its great strengths. Policy belongs in the political arena, not the Constitution.

For over two centuries, the genius of Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues gave us the finest mechanism for governance in the world, but few would say that we should follow his suggestion and rewrite the U. S. Constitution in every generation. Similarly, while it may be informative and enlightening to review our state's Constitution every so often, 1994 is not the time to call for a convention. While some ideas for revision have merit, the dangers of a general re-write of our state's basic governing document probably exceed any potential benefit from a convention.