Michigan State Legislature to take up statutory initiative

Another example of how the Michigan Constitution allows citizens to be directly involved in the legislative process.

On December 2, 2013, the Board of State Canvassers certified that Michigan Right to Life had acquired enough petition signatures to present wording for a statutory initiative to the state legislature. This action requires legislators to vote on the proposed law exactly as it was presented on the petition. Regardless of one’s opinion about insurance policies covering elective abortions, this is an example of how an interest group and the 299,941 voters in Michigan who signed the petitions demonstrated one of the rights guaranteed to them by our state’s Constitution.

It seems there has been an increase in citizen engagement in the statutory process in the last several years. Last year, seven citizen-initiated proposals were put before the Board of State Canvassers to be placed on the November 2012 ballot. Ultimately only six were certified; however, if all seven had, 2012 would have been the year with the most proposals before voters since 1982. An article published July 2012, by Michigan State University Extension on Michigan’s 2012 Statewide Ballot Proposals discussed that process.

There are four methods described in the Michigan Constitution whereby the citizens can have direct input into the laws that govern the state: (1) statutory initiative, (2) voter referendum, (3) legislative referendum and (4) constitutional amendment

A statutory initiative, the hot topic in the news this week, is defined by Section 9 of Article 2 of the Michigan Constitution. This rule allows the people “to propose laws and to enact and reject laws.” This initiative power extends to any law the Legislature may enact and is invoked by filing petitions containing signatures of registered voters equal in number to at least 8 percent of the total votes cast in the last election for governor. The Legislature is required to enact, without modification, or reject any proposed initiative within 40 session days. An initiative not enacted by the Legislature is placed on the statewide ballot at the next general election. A law that is initiated or adopted by the people is not subject to gubernatorial veto and once adopted by voters cannot subsequently be amended or repealed except by the voters or by a three-fourths vote of the Legislature. Therefore, if the Legislature votes against the proposal put forth by Michigan Right to Life, we will see it on the ballot in November 2014. If they vote for it, it will be the law of the land and the Governor will have no power to veto.

A Voter Referendum is defined by Section 9 of Article 2 of the Michigan Constitution, which gives the power to voters “to approve and reject laws enacted by the legislature.” Referendum must be invoked, within 90 days of final adjournment of the legislative session during which the law in question was enacted, by filing petitions containing signatures equal in number to at least 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the last general election. The effect of invoking a referendum is to suspend the law in question until voters approve or reject it at the next general election. In 2012, enough signatures were collected to invoke a referendum for the Emergency Manager Law (P.A. 4 of 2011) and that issue appeared on the ballot. The voters adopted the referendum and that law became null and void. (A new emergency manager law, P.A. 436 of 2013, was enacted by the legislature to replace the one revoked by voters and is in effect in many Michigan cities).

The ability to amend the Michigan Constitution is authorized in Sections 1 and 2 of Article 12. A constitutional amendment can be proposed either by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or by citizens gathering signatures of registered state voters on a petition. The number of signatures needed to qualify a petition is at least ten percent of the total votes cast for governor in the last general election. Most of the ballot initiatives we have seen in Michigan over the past few elections have been proposals to amend the constitution.

A legislative referendum is authorized by Section 34 of Article 4 of the Constitution. The Legislature may use this form of referendum to allow the voters to make the final decision on whether or not a bill becomes a law. In order to place the issue on the ballot, the Legislature must pass the bill and the Governor must approve language stating that it will not become law unless approved by a majority of electors. A legislative referendum cannot be used to make decisions on spending money.

It is hard to say how citizens decide to sign a petition when approached by a petition canvasser. The choice to sign may be based on how persuasive the person is who is holding the clipboard, or a signer may even seek out a petition to sign if it is an issue she or he is passionate about and interested in seeing it move forward. However, it is less likely that the signer understands what impact that signature will have to the legislative process if enough signatures are collected. Petition campaigns yield results as shown by this recent Michigan Right to Life effort. What might seem like giving a nod to an idea by simply writing down one’s name, can have a big impact on shaping public policy. 

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