By Michael Sabbagh
Imagine, if you will, that public votes don’t matter. That a specific political party is so hell-bent on imposing their will on the people of a certain state that they exert their majority in the state house by passing controversial legislation along party lines. The legislation is then codified as a ‘public act’ by the partisan governor, leaving a public recall vote as the final arbiter of democracy.
Now imagine that there is a massive grassroots campaign to repeal this legislation during the next voting cycle. People from all different walks of life working together to get a ballot initiative together, collect the appropriate amount of signatures, convince voters why this is bad for our state and successfully motivate voters to come in droves to repeal the public act. Balance has been restored and the people have checked partisan power. That’s how democracy’s supposed to work, right?
This mental exercise has become all too common reality in the state of Michigan during Governor Snyder’s tenure in Lansing. Organizers didn’t even have time to celebrate the defeat of House Republicans’ expanded Emergency Manager (EM) laws at the ballot in November before Gov. Snyder introduced and plowed through an even more insidious version before recess in December, again along party lines. Let’s take a look at Public Act 4, the challenge from voters with Proposal 1 and the latest incarnation of the replacement EM Law passed late last year, and what this means for the overall conception of democracy in the State of Michigan.
Changes to the Emergency Manager Law
The proposal that made its way onto the ballot in November was a public vote for the new EM law that Gov. Snyder pushed through the state Senate a few months prior. Michigan, like virtually all states, has had EM provisions on the books for decades, but Gov. Snyder wanted to make it easier to seize control of city finances as the Governor’s office saw fit – or as he put it, “streamline the process”. As we’ve seen before, “streamline” is generally code for “squash debate,” and prop 1 set out to challenge the EM changes Gov. Snyder and co put forward. These included expanding the powers of the EM and the conditions under which they can be appointed, speeding up the appointment process and finally, expanding the powers of the committee performing the initial review. A primary outcome is that the EMs would once again be allowed to dismiss local councils, break union contracts with city workers and even redesign the public school curriculum.
There were a handful of cities with EMs in place or in the process of having one appointed at the time of the vote: Flint, Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac and Detroit Public Schools. The defeat of Proposal 1 cast serious doubt on these arrangements and Gov. Snyder’s future plans to appoint more EMs. His next step can only be described as brazen: reintroduce PA 4 as a series of ‘choices’ which all retain the bills original intent. Now cities and school districts must choose to enter either into a ‘consent agreement’ with the state to oversee their finances, like Detroit, or begin mediation; file for bankruptcy or accept a state appointed Emergency Manager. Most of the expanded powers remain, including the ability to break union contracts. Each option has its own pitfalls and ultimately leads to a dead-end for cities hoping to retain local control. The main difference this time though is that Gov. Snyder’s new bill is protected from public vote.
Who needs democracy, anyway?
There’s a funny bylaw in Michigan’s legislative milieu that essentially allows a majority party to short circuit public referendum and enact whatever laws they see fit. By embedding spending into a piece of legislation, no matter how insignificant, a public act is shielded from a recall by the voting public. This is where we are today with Michigan’s EM saga. The latest bill appropriates $770,000 for the Emergency Managers’ salaries and thus legally shields it from public recourse. Gov. Snyder and co. got their cake and they’re eating too.
We can talk all day about why this latest EM law is bad for cities and local autonomy but the main argument is that it’s entering into unknown territory. Describing the Emergency Managers as ‘dictators’ might be a bit dramatic, but it’s not a far cry. What’s more troubling is that Gov. Snyder and state Republicans are sending a clear message: we’re going to do what we want, when we want it, regardless if the public agrees. If expanding the Emergency Managers’ powers is so overwhelmingly positive, why is this latest gesture shielded from public vote and clearly goes against the public will? This is a disturbing trend that we’re seeing more and more. The so-called “right to work” legislation was passed using the same spending-as-shield trick during the same session as the replacement Emergency Manager law, as were some restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. Democracy is under attack, and it’s up to us to come up with creative ways to voice dissent since our ability to vote on these issues has been taken away.