By Roger Martin
Michigan voters in 2018 may decide the fate of up to eight statewide ballot questions, including proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use, end the state’s prevailing wage law, change how we draw our political districts, and shut down a controversial oil pipeline.
Other statewide ballot proposals have also been announced — including one requiring employers to provide sick leave time for all employees, and another making Michigan’s Legislature part-time — while rumors continue to swirl about the possible launch of two proposals that would give Michigan residents certain guarantees to health insurance.
To qualify for a spot on the Nov. 6, 2018 general election ballot in Michigan, ballot question supporters must collect the valid signatures of hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters. In Michigan, most ballot question backers hire small armies of people called “paid circulators” to collect the signatures of voters in high traffic areas such as summer festivals, parades, sporting events, outside public buildings, and in busy urban areas.
Putting a question on the ballot, and then running a campaign to pass it, usually requires substantial financial resources — often several to many millions of dollars. The effort requires the services of attorneys who understand public policy and election laws, firms that specialize in managing the process of collecting voter signatures, dozens to thousands of volunteers, and firms that specialize in researching, planning and running campaigns to educate voters and convince them to vote “yes.”
Because most ballot proposals involve controversial issues, opposition campaigns almost always organize and engage. While “no” campaigns generally require lower budgets than “yes” campaigns, they can still be expensive and no less difficult to mount.
Right now, it’s uncertain how many of the proposals will end up qualifying for Michigan’s general election ballot next year. Many proposals fall short for various reasons, usually failing to get enough signatures due to a lack of organizational or financial support. More often today, opponents are successfully “disqualifying” the proposal (keeping it off the ballot) for a litany of possible legal deficiencies, including illegal or duplicate signatures (as in the prevailing wage campaign in 2016).
Here’s a brief look at the ballot questions that have been announced and/or whose supporters are actively collecting signatures for the November 2018 statewide ballot:
Make state Legislature part-time
The Clean Michigan Committee, led by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, is backing a constitutional amendment to make the state Legislature part-time. Under the proposal, the Legislature would have to adjourn by April 15 every year, and lawmaker pay would be reduced by more than half. Calley is a potential — most assume likely — candidate for governor next year. The committee is actively collecting voter signatures, though some insiders believe that supporters are most interested in using the measure to boost Calley’s gubernatorial stature among the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Legalize recreational marijuana (two proposals)
The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is seeking to make Michigan the ninth state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Under the proposal, adults ages 21 and older could possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and have up to 12 plants in their home. People who purchase marijuana would pay a 10-percent tax and the state’s 6 percent sales tax. Among all the questions potentially headed to the ballot next year, this one stands the best chance of qualifying for the ballot and passing. It is well-funded and enjoys the strong support of national pro-marijuana interests who have successfully passed similar measures in other states. Early polling shows support for the proposal among Michigan voters in the mid-50 percent range to slightly higher, with voters on both sides pretty entrenched. The coalition also has a strong Michigan-based strategic communications and legal team experienced in managing ballot proposal campaigns. Insiders are waiting to see if organized, competitively funded opposition emerges.
Petitions for a second proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana usage in Michigan has also been approved by the Board of State Canvassers. The proposal from Abrogate Prohibition Michigan would negate all state laws that prohibit or regulate the use of marijuana and impose no fines, taxes or any types of penalties for using marijuana. It’s unclear if supporters of this proposal have the resources to make a serious run at getting the proposal on the ballot and running a campaign to pass it.
End prevailing wage law
A pro-business group is leading a ballot question campaign to end Michigan’s 52-year-old prevailing wage law, which requires contractors on construction projects funded by the state to pay workers union-rate wages and benefits.
The proposal is from Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, a ballot committee led by a group of non-union companies that are members of Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan. Supporters also include key Republican leaders in the state Legislature, who argue that repealing the law would save taxpayers money.
Opponents include Gov. Rick Snyder, some Republicans, organized labor, most Democrats and a number of construction companies and contractors who argue the measure would make it much harder to find skilled workers for construction projects in Michigan at a time when there is already a shortage.
The effort is well-funded and backed by groups with significant political capabilities and experience. If supporters collect enough valid signatures, as expected, the “initiated law” would go to the Legislature before going onto the General Election ballot next year. The Legislature would then have 40 days to pass the law. If they pass it — as supporters presume will happen — the Governor would be unable to veto the measure and it would become law without ever having to go to voters. If, however, the group is unable to gain legislative approval, you will see it on the 2018 general election ballot.
Change redistricting process
Voters Not Politicians is circulating petitions to change how Michigan creates its political districts — specifically the state’s 14 congressional and 148 legislative districts.
Every 10 years, the party that controls the Michigan Legislature redraws the districts based on population changes identified in the new U.S. Census. Opponents of the current “redistricting” process argue that politicians should not be in charge of redrawing their own districts because the new boundaries are “gerrymandered” to favor the party in power and incumbents over the minority party and any candidate who might want to challenge a sitting lawmaker.
The proposal would create an independent, 13-member commission to draw the districts. The commission would be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and five people who are unaffiliated with either party. The commission could not draw new districts that provide a “disproportionate advantage” to a political party.
It’s unclear if backers will have sufficient resources to collect enough valid signatures and run a strong “yes” campaign. For example, the committee is relying on volunteers to circulate petitions, a process that has tended to fail far more often than succeed in recent Michigan history. The measure is strongly opposed by Republicans who control the state Legislature.
Shut down Line 5
A committee named Keep Our Great Lakes Great wants voters to approve a ballot question to shut down the controversial twin Line 5 pipelines that transport oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac. By all appearances, the group lacks resources to run a successful campaign.
Guaranteed paid sick time
The Raise Michigan committee is backing a ballot question asking voters to approve the Earned Sick Time Act. Under the law, fulltime and part-time employees would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. Workers at large companies would be able to use up to 72 hours of paid sick leave annually, while employees of smaller companies would be limited to no more than 40 hours. Supporters of this proposal — many Democrats and labor groups — tried, and failed, to put a similar measure on the ballot in 2016.
Which of these proposals may actually end up on the 2018 general election ballot will become more clear next summer, as the legal deadlines approach for ballot committees to turn in their petitions to the Michigan Secretary of State.
(Roger Martin is a partner at Martin Waymire (www.MartinWaymire.com), a Lansing-based strategic public relations and digital marketing agency. He has worked on a dozen statewide, county and local ballot question campaigns during his career in public relations, and covered dozens more as a political reporter at The Detroit News in the 1980s and 1990s.)