News Story

Does Michigan Need a New Constitution?

Standing before a crowd of TEA party activists last month, a member of the audience asked State Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, whether a constitutional convention was a good thing.

"That is a very bad thing," Bishop told the crowd. "Any time you open a window, all the flies can come in. There are a lot of flies out there now."

Every 16 years, Michigan voters have the opportunity to request a constitutional convention to completely rewrite the state constitution. Everything from how schools are funded to tax laws to how the state legislature works can be put on the table.

The last time this was done was 1962. Voters rejected the opportunity to rewrite the Michigan Constitution in 1978 and 1994. But Michigan has led the country in unemployment for more than a year and is consistently ranked as having one of the worst business climates in the country.

Is a complete overhaul due?

One of the concerns is that radicals could get in charge and change the constitution dramatically.

"Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

But Henry Woloson, a leader of Energize Michigan — a group in favor of a constitutional convention — said the state can no longer afford status quo.

"If anyone should understand the partisan gridlock that is happening in Lansing, it is Mr. Bishop,” Woloson said. “Mr. Bishop, you had the ability as Senate Majority Leader to enact change. Where is it?"

Woloson said the mutual fear of the opposing political viewpoint ruling a constitutional convention leads groups usually at odds with each other — such as the Michigan Education Association and Michigan Chamber of Commerce — to agree to oppose a constitutional convention.

"I almost feel like Godzilla," Woloson said. "You know those movies where the countries are at odds but everyone drops their animosity and decides to fight the monster. … I have succeeded in unifying the MEA and the Chamber of Commerce."

And Woloson thinks it would be difficult for radicals from one side to rule in a constitutional convention, pointing out that such a cabal would need to first get its members elected, then dominate the committees, and then convince the whole delegation to approve the rewrite.

But that wouldn't be all.

"And then they have to get it approved by the majority of voters in the next general election," Woloson said. "That's a pretty high threshold."

But Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, warned the same career politicians that got Michigan into trouble would most likely be the ones vying for delegate spots.

"Our state's problems are not due to the institutional arrangements the constitution establishes. Instead, they arise from the combination of a political class comprised of careerist politicians whose careers are preserved by serving the system rather than the people, and the domination of that system by government employee unions in particular, and also by politically powerful 'rent-seeking' corporations," McHugh wrote in an e-mail.

"Worse yet," he wrote, "the same careerist political class who created the mess and benefit from it will be the con-con delegates. Specifically, most will probably be former lawmakers forced out by term limits. That's because delegates will be selected through an election process that mirrors current legislative elections, and these termed-out legislators are the people who have the political skills and know-how to win those elections."