Michigan needs a new constitution

Michigan needs a new constitution

Michigan was once one of the better-run states in the union. No, it was never perfect. You had your share of petty crooks and poseurs in Lansing; drinkers, hound dogs, and cheerful idiots.

Yet stuff got done. Roads got fixed, higher education was largely affordable for even blue-collar families, and there was a sense that politics and government were about more than merely getting to the next rung of the ladder.

Today, that's not the case. You can see it throughout the decay infecting politics and government throughout the state; you can see it in the decaying infrastructure, the lousy roads, and pitted bridges.

You can see it, perhaps most of all, in the kind of thing I wrote about last week; term-limited lawmakers, knowing they won't be around to reap the consequences, jury-rigging things to make sure not that problems are solved, but that the reckoning is kicked down the line a few years till they are out of office. That's what they did in November 2015 with the roads: Facing overwhelming public hostility over their failure to deal with the roads, our lawmakers passed a "fix" which is totally phony and doesn't raise nearly enough money.

What it will do is devastate the state's general fund, which is where the money for everything from foster care to aid to higher education to prisons comes from.

This will cause hard choices and needless and tremendous pain for those who can afford it least, but those who stuck us with it in 2015 will be gone or in their final terms.

Michigan government is broken, comrades, at too many levels to count. Electing a slightly better governor and a few more enlightened legislators won't fix it. If the Voters Not Politicians referendum to end gerrymandering gets on the ballot, that will help.

But it won't be the answer. Not as long as our system of term limits fosters perpetual ignorance, incompetence, and ideological stupidity. Not as long as any special interest with money can pay to collect signatures to slap a new proposed state constitutional amendment on the ballot to take rights from the people.

Michigan badly needs a new constitution. Unfortunately, as it now stands, we have to wait eight years for a chance at one. The system works this way: Every 16 years, we the people are asked if we want to have a constitutional convention.

Mostly, we've said no, by a margin of about three to one. The last time, in 2010, it was a little closer; calling a constitutional convention was turned down by a little less than two to one.

Voters had started to figure out it wasn't working for them anymore. But that was the year of the Tea Party, and progressives and moderates feared — not without reason — if they called a convention, the far right would hijack it and make things worse.

But now things are worse.

They are often completely irrational.

Consider this for a moment. There's a huge struggle under way for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general — between Patrick Miles, the former federal prosecutor for the Western District of Michigan, and Dana Nessel, the lead attorney in the same-sex adoption case.

Both represent different outlooks and have different views on many issues, including marijuana.

You might think people in this state — Democrats — deserve the chance to pick one of those candidates in an open primary.

But oh, no. The party hacks — er, delegates — will do that for you in their state convention around about Labor Day. You just have to trust them to do a good job. They always do, don't they?

But get this. Remember those wonderful men and women on the MSU Board of Trustees? They're the ones who did absolutely nothing to launch an investigation into what was happening after former women's gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was arrested and charged with everything from child porn to molesting the first few of scores and scores of women athletes.

You elected them.

Yes, bizarrely, our state constitution says that the three major universities — MSU, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University — are each governed by eight-person boards elected by a statewide vote of the people.

That sounds wonderfully democratic. In fact it is just plain stupid. While we supposedly get to vote for them, in reality we are not voting for education experts, but for slates of party activists stuck on the ballot by the Republicans or Democrats.

Few pay any attention to these elections, and they normally are determined by how many people cast straight party votes.

When President Obama won a landslide in Michigan in 2008, all the Democrats won; when Rick Snyder was elected governor two years later in a Republican landslide, they racked up board seats.

Usually, I have found that most of the Wayne State and University of Michigan trustees were genuinely interested in the good of the institution, regardless of politics. Michigan State trustees seemed mainly interested in football tickets and other perks.

For years, trustee Joel Ferguson controlled a ruling faction which stood for protecting the athletic program, uber alles — above everything else.

We can all now see what that led to.

This, of course, is just the most recent idiocy.

Michigan's current constitution was narrowly approved by a vote of the people in 1963. George Romney, a big moving force in those days, told us we needed a new constitution because, among other things, the old one was 55 years old that year.

Get out your calculator and see how old the "new" constitution will be this year. The main flaw is not its peculiar system of deciding who we do and do not get to choose for ourselves.

No, it is that it is ridiculously easy to amend. Any special interest with money to burn can hire a bunch of unemployed people to collect signatures with a clipboard to get some proposed amendment on the ballot that will further chip away at democracy.

They haven't always succeeded, but over time they have often enough that it has considerably weakened our constitution and our democracy. Consider this: The U.S. Constitution has been amended a mere 17 times since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.

Michigan's Constitution has been amended 32 times since 1963. The amendments have nearly doubled its length and junked it up. Term limits did the most damage; Proposal A, which put education funding in an eternal straitjacket, was almost as bad.

Plus the fact that the Michigan Constitution outlaws any use of a graduated income tax, meaning we can't make the rich shoulder a bigger burden than the poor.

Well, we'll be asked if we want to try for something better in 2026, but with our state falling apart and every chance to be competitive slipping away, I wonder if we can wait that long.

This might be futile, but what the hell: Perhaps we ought to try and attempt to amend the current constitution to allow us to have a "con-con" sooner. Otherwise, we may be beyond hope before we get a chance to undo the damage.

Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.