March 19, 2019

Lame Duck Lame Legislation

By Stephen Tuttle | Jan. 5, 2019

Lame duck legislative sessions, those that occur between the November general election and the start of a new session the first week of January, are typically full of mischief.
For defeated or retiring legislators, it's a last chance to sneak in some new pet law or project. Or just the last chance to get even with opponents or just be contrary. This year we've seen a slightly different scenario: Republican-controlled legislatures attempting to hamstring incoming Democrat administrations by stripping away some of the power their governor just enjoyed. Wisconsin would be Exhibit A. 
Michigan, never wanting to be left behind, tried to strip away investigative power from the incoming Democrat attorney general and force new limitations on the new secretary of state's election oversight. They didn't succeed, but it wasn't for lack of effort. 
They succeeded in passing a mountain of last-minute legislation full of foolishness, most of which outgoing governor Rick Snyder signed in a flurry.     
They managed to steal away $174 million intended for public schools that will now instead go to something called Restore Michigan, which will, presumably, fix up everything. The lost money, Snyder and others claimed, will be replaced by the new online sales tax revenue. Money that was there now replaced by money that might be there in the ongoing robbery of public education. 
They also gutted minimum wage and paid sick leave legislation. Both issues qualified as ballot initiatives, one raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022 (including for employees who rely on tips), and the other mandated 72 hours of paid sick leave per year.
Due to a quirky Michigan law, the legislature was able to hijack the initiative by claiming they would enact it themselves, which they dutifully did as required. The trick, of course, is that once it became legislation, they could change it, which they did dramatically during their lame duck session. 
Now the $12 an hour minimum wage need not go into effect until 2030, paid sick leave has been cut in half, and tipped workers did even worse: Their minimum wage will rise only to $4 per hour by 2030.  
The dismembering, a Republican spokesperson said, was in keeping with the “intent and spirit” of the original initiative. Sure, in the same way a decapitation is in the spirit of a haircut. 
What Michigan really needs is a constitutional amendment protecting the initiative process from legislative intrusions. If an initiative qualifies for the ballot then on the ballot, it should go. If it passes and contains technical glitches, the legislature should be authorized to fix those and only those.
The current process of the legislature — claiming there's no need for a public vote because they've taken care of it, all the while knowing they will vivisect it later — defrauds the spirit and intent of the initiative process.
Unfortunately, our lame duck legislature has made any new initiative drive much more difficult, to the point of near impossibility.
Getting anything on the Michigan ballot by initiative drive was already challenging enough. In 2020, qualifying to put an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot will require more than 425,000 valid signatures and a statutory initiative of more than 340,000. It is time consuming and expensive since most of the petition circulators are now paid. 
Thanks to the legislature, those petitions may now contain no more than 15 percent of their signatures from any one of Michigan's 14 congressional districts. The Republican legislature apparently decided there was too much of that pesky citizen involvement in their business, so they found yet another way to discourage it. 
It means those seeking signatures will no longer be able to focus on the most logical places to get them: population centers. The law's clear intent is to prevent citizen initiatives from reaching the ballot. It's a big step backward.
The only good news about this is it probably runs afoul of the U.S. and state constitutions; the right to petition the government is pretty clear in both. But unless you're one of the lucky 15 percent in your congressional district, you might well be precluded from petitioning the government in Michigan. That sounds like an abridgment of a guaranteed right.  
What we really need, most everywhere, is an end to lame duck legislative sessions now so full of spite and cynicism. Legislatures should adjourn the day before the general election and not return until the new session begins in January. We'll call it the Dead Duck Session. (No offense to the living duck community intended.)
It's a time of bad intentions and bad legislation and bad results for the rest of us. They should just go home and start fresh with the new legislature. It would be a good ballot initiative, if only that were still reasonably possible.


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