A Constitutional Convention Wish List

If Michigan voters decide to approve a constitutional convention, what changes to the state's Constitution should the convention consider?

Every sixteen years, the people of our state are given the opportunity to decide whether to call a convention for the purpose of rewriting the state constitution. In 1962, the voters said yes and the resulting document, the Constitution of 1963, is today our governing law. In 1978, voters declined to call for a convention by a wide margin.

The purpose of a constitution is, first and foremost, to put limits on the power of government over the citizenry. As the drafters of the federal constitution understood when they wrote that document in 1787, preventing a tyranny of either the majority or a minority requires that government be denied arbitrary and capricious power that violates the rights of individuals.

On November 8, Michigan voters must decide the convention question again. What the verdict will be is anybody's guess at this point, but it is reasonable to assume that those who vote no will do so either because they are happy with the present constitution or because they fear that a new convention might produce something worse. But if the decision is affirmative and a convention is called, I have a few suggestions.

Does Michigan's present constitution adequately protect its citizens against state infringements upon their rights? Close inspection suggests that there is room for improvement in this area. My wish list for a constitutional convention contains three specific proposals that could stop many governmental usurpations of power.

First, the constitution ought to contain a provision declaring that the state shall not dictate the terms of private contracts. Currently, Article I, Section 10 forbids the enactment of laws "impairing the obligation of contracts." But the great threat to liberty lies not in the state's undermining of existing contracts, but rather in its tendency to demand that private parties write their contracts in certain ways decreed by politicians.

The state now demands, for instance, that sellers of private health insurance require their customers to buy a range of coverages--therapies and procedures from chiropractic care to treatment for alcohol abuse-whether those customers want all those things or not. That intrudes on the freedom of both buyers and sellers in the marketplace, and, by raising the cost of health insurance, it prices low income people out of the market as well. That's one of many possible examples of harmful interference with the right of freedom to contract that stronger language in the state's constitution could prevent.

Second, the constitution should protect educational freedom.

The shortcomings of the government's monopoly school system have left many parents yearning for alternatives. Some send their children to private schools while others teach their children at home. Nevertheless, these parents are compelled to pay fully for the public systems they seek to escape. While Article VIII, Section 2 prohibits any public funds from going to support non-public education, a constitutional change that allows at least some of the parents' own tax dollars to support the form of schooling they actually prefer would do justice to those parents and promote much-needed competition.

Third, the constitution should contain strong protections against regulatory "takings" of private property. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that state governments cannot take private property without good reason and that, when they do, they must adequately compensate the owner, the Court's notion of what actually constitutes a taking is feeble and uncertain. This has led to many cases in Michigan where property owners have been prevented by regulation (rules on wetlands, for example) from doing almost anything with their land except pay taxes on it. Their property has been effectively seized by the state without any compensation at all.

Drafting precise and proper language to define a "taking" would be no easy task, but it is one that is long overdue and deserving of inclusion in the constitution, where it would be difficult for politicians to compromise statutorily. By writing clear protection for property owners into its constitution, Michigan could lead the way for resolving this serious problem nationwide.

These three changes certainly do not comprise an exhaustive wish list for a constitutional convention. There is, furthermore, no guarantee that a convention would even address them at all. However, since Michigan voters must soon decide whether they want their constitution rewritten, they ought to know that there are at least three ways it could be improved.