On Nov. 2,
Michigan voters will face Proposal 1, which will ask whether a convention
should be held to rewrite Michigan's constitution. Although we can certainly
improve that foundational document, most of Michigan's problems could be solved
without rewriting it. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that a constitutional
convention would fix, or even address, whatever problems might prompt voters to
call the convention in the first place.
Proposal 1 will
be on the ballot because the current constitution, passed in 1963, requires the
question to appear automatically every 16 years, starting in 1978. That year,
77 percent of voters rejected the constitutional convention and 72 percent did
likewise in 1994. Recent polling indicates voters may be more open to the idea
this year, but they disapprove by more than 2-to-1 when told the cost could be
as much as $45 million.
The fundamental purpose of the state constitution is to limit government’s ability to infringe on people’s rights.
few convention proponents have organized around specific reform ideas. Examples
include lengthening legislative term limits, converting to a part-time
Legislature, modifying selection of judges, altering the budget process,
expanding water regulation, increasing taxation and more.
Others who have
long sought specific changes in Michigan law are considering supporting a
convention for the sake of their single issue. Some in the highly energized Tea
Party movement wonder if a constitutional convention might let them effectively
open the hood of state government and fix what's broken at a time when the
state seems unable to cope with its alarming economic decline.
The problem is,
that's not the way it would likely work. A constitutional convention is not
like handing your car to a certified mechanic; it's more like giving it to 148
trained and untrained mechanics and letting them do anything a majority of them
can agree to, including replacing your car with something much worse. After a
lot of time, trouble and expense, you and fellow voters collectively choose
between the mechanics' handiwork and exactly what you started with.
The passage of
Proposal 1 would set a process in motion. Two elections — a partisan primary
and a general — would be held by May 2011 to elect the 148 convention delegates,
one from each state House and Senate district. They would convene by October,
select their own officers and create their own rules. They'd meet in Lansing
and could continue through July 2012. Whatever they produced would go to voters
for approval within 90 days. If it passed by a simple majority, the new
constitution would take effect.
this process would address our problems any better than the current legislative
system. Our most serious economic problems involve chronic overspending in the
face of weakening state revenue, which is worsened by rising levels of taxation
and regulation that drive people and businesses from the state.
If our current
lawmakers can't fix that, it's not because the constitution prevents them from
doing so. More likely it's because voters haven't yet held individual lawmakers
responsible for reckless spending (although this may be changing). If voters
aren't yet holding legislators accountable for spending, it's not clear how
they would hold convention delegates accountable for potentially bigger
decisions. The fundamental purpose of the state constitution is to limit
government's ability to infringe on people's rights. Where constitutional
changes are needed, the voter initiative process is a better alternative than a
convention, which could be unlimited in scope and cost millions of taxpayer
there a convincing reason to believe convention delegates would be more capable
than current legislators. Delegate elections would be highly partisan and
influenced by the same special interests that dominate regular elections.
The prospect of
rewriting a constitution could attract some truly exceptional, public-service
minded candidates, but it would probably attract even more of those who would
typically run for the Legislature, along with term-limited former lawmakers. It
might especially draw highly charged, single-issue candidates whose priorities
could make the convention agenda read like the contents of Pandora's box.
serious problems, but they should be fixed without a constitutional convention.
The problem with Michigan government isn't so much what's under the hood, it's
what we're letting the driver get away with. If your teenage driver is
irresponsible, no mechanic can change that. Instead, you need better control
and accountability of the driver.
Joseph G. Lehman
is president of 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.