Michigan Think Tank Uncovers Motives of Union Ballot Initiative

Everyone is in favor of reform.  That’s why sponsors of “reform measures” often disguise highly partisan ideas as feel-good populism.  A United Auto Workers-sponsored initiative set for placement before Michigan voters this November should serve as a fair warning of the power to obfuscate.  At issue is a voter initiative known as Reform Michigan Government Now.  Despite its avowedly bipartisan appeal, the measure contains elements that suggest it’s a stalking-horse for strengthening the state’s Democratic leadership, beginning with Governor Jennifer Granholm.  And at least one major union may be lending financial support. 


Reform Michigan Government Now, or RMGN, is a sweeping state constitutional amendment.  Based in Hastings (southeast of Grand Rapids), the campaign covers four areas of reform – executive, legislative, judicial and elections – and vows to streamline government and eliminate favoritism.  Among its features, the measure would reduce the size of the legislature and the top courts, cut salaries of the governor, legislature and judges by anywhere from 15 to 25 percent, and expand eligibility for absentee balloting.  It also would change the rules on legislative redistricting every 10 years to reflect population changes.    


Yet certain critics charge the real purpose is to deliver a wish list to Democrats under the guise of bipartisanship.  As a smoking gun, they’re pointing to a discovery by a Midland, Mich.-based think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  Mackinac Center researchers, in the course of reviewing online union financial reports to the U.S. Department of Labor, came upon a 34-page PowerPoint presentation on the website of UAW Region 1-C.  The text read in part:


In 2008, use the public’s very negative mood and high level of discouragement about state government (the worst in 25 years) to enact a ballot proposal which comprehensively reforms state government, including changing the structural obstacles to Democratic control of state government in 2012-2021.


The presentation got specific about the advantages of passage:


  • Less than half the cost of trying to beat an incumbent GOP Supreme Court Justice.


  • More is spent every four years trying to win the House and Senate, usually unsuccessfully.


  • Less than half the cost of a presidential election year Coordinated Campaign.


  • If the proposal passes, it will reduce the cost and increase the prospects of winning the State Legislature every cycle.


The Mackinac Center cried, “Voila!”, and broke the news to “The Frank Beckmann Show,” broadcast midday on Detroit’s WJR-AM.  Within an hour, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News and various radio and TV outlets throughout Michigan followed through with stories of their own.  Free Press Editorial Page Editor Ron Dzwonkowski wrote in the paper’s July 20 edition:  “The Reform Michigan Government Now proposal should really be called Hand It to the Democrats Later.  It’s carrot-and-stick politics – chew on this smaller-government carrot and we’ll stick you with one-party rule in Lansing for years, maybe decades, to come.”   


The UAW confirmed its website contained the PowerPoint presentation.  Indeed, Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney explicitly defended the proposal.  “During these rough economic times,” he said, “politicians should lead by example and share in the pain that working families feel.  Only by true shared sacrifice can Michigan’s economy be fixed.”  Now the mere fact of support from state UAW leaders doesn’t invalidate the case for passage.  But supporters have been less than up front about how the campaign has been funded.  And given the online discovery, it’s likely the UAW had more than a little to do with this – and that “reform” applies selectively.    


The measure needed 370,000 signatures from registered voters to be eligible for the ballot, and got nearly a half-million – more than enough.  Still, it has to pass muster with state verification of names and addresses.  And that’s not the only hurdle.  The Michigan Chamber of Commerce announced on July 18 that it will challenge the eligibility of the RMGN in court on grounds that it is too broad to qualify as a state constitutional amendment through referendum and that it makes reference to a nonexistent section of the Michigan Constitution.  What’s more, the UAW had conducted polls and focus groups over a year ago, thus possibly triggering union financial reporting requirements not yet met.  Robert LaBrant, Chamber senior vice president and general counsel, emphasized his group’s position:  “We’re not going to allow the Michigan Constitution to be hijacked like that.  This petition drive is all about guaranteeing (Democratic) control of state government in the coming decade.” 


Reform Michigan Government Now contains nearly two dozen points of action designed to make state government more accountable.  A good number of them appear sensible, even overdue.  But to get an idea of where supporters want to go with them, it would be a good idea to find out who’s paying the bills.  The United Auto Workers, and any other union involved in the effort, should reveal how much, and when, they committed member dues money to the effort. (Detroit News, 7/18/08; mlive.com, 6/17/08, 7/20/08; Detroit Free Press, 7/20/08; Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 7/08).