A missed connection on Michigan’s ballot questions?

Bridge battle draws the attention, but Props 1 and 2 could lead to future conflict

MICHIGAN — On Tuesday, voters will here sift through six ballot initiatives that could transform the state’s policies on a range of issues, from collective bargaining and Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law to a new bridge across the Canadian border. With boatloads of money poured into the campaigns—active ballot question committees have raised more than $141 million this election cycle, according to the statewide news site MLive—the press corps has done a decent job in explaining the proposals and describing the campaigns behind them. But the state’s media has also missed an opportunity to analyze how two of initiatives, if enacted, could undercut each other—planting the seeds for future political conflict.

Even with the presidential campaign and a U.S. Senate race in the state, the ballot questions have hardly been neglected in local media: MLive gave readers an early preview of the wording of the initiatives and ran a “Michigan Decides” series that featured live-chats and columns on the proposals. The Craig Fahle Show, a public radio program in Detroit (profiled by CJR here), spent more than a week devoted to discussing the proposals one by one, and a segment on Fahle’s Nov. 1 broadcast admirably broke out of the metro Detroit bubble to talk with broadcasters from northern and western Michigan. Bridge Magazine, published by the Center for Michigan think tank, featured a “Ballot Mania” package on its website that collected columns and news stories on each proposal in an easy-to-navigate fashion. The Detroit Free Press published editorial endorsements, “opposing points-of-view” op-eds, and reported factchecking stories. (Unfortunately, the newspaper’s online archiving system, which seems about 15 years out of date, moves online articles to a paid archive after about two months. As the election nears, coverage on, for example, spending on the ballot initiatives is only available for a fee.) The Detroit News followed a similar tack to the Free Press (and has the same online access restrictions), publishing several articles about political battles over the proposals.

There’s some good across-the-board coverage here, but the focus has definitely been Prop. 6, which calls for a statewide vote before any international bridge or tunnel is built. There’s an accessible story about money and influence here: a local billionaire owns the existing bridge from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has a deal to build a new bridge, which will imperil the billionaire’s profits. So the billionaire has, as The Detroit News reports, spent more than $31 million on Prop. 6—which, if it passes, would give him an opportunity to spend millions more in a referendum on the bridge deal. (Writing in Canada’s National Post, David Frum described Prop. 6 as threatening to turn direct democracy into “auctioned democracy.”) Disproportionately affecting the state’s major media market and featuring a compelling Mr. Potter character, Prop. 6 has gotten a huge share of attention from Michigan’s political reporters. That’s appropriate—but it has sometimes come at the expense of the other ballot initiatives.

Those initiatives include Prop. 1, the emergency manager question. Michigan drew national attention last year when Snyder expanded a law that sent appointees of the governor to supervise finances in struggling cities and school districts. Under the new law, Public Act 4, emergency managers have the ability to break or re-open union contracts, and to choose not to negotiate with unions in setting new terms. Opponents of Prop. 1 argue that it is an unacceptable infringement on democratic rights. Supporters say it is a crucial and temporary tactic to keep cities and schools out of bankruptcy, and that, since residents have an overlapping identity as citizens of Michigan, the state has a responsibility to do so.

Prop. 2, meanwhile, is an initiative to enshrine collective bargaining rights into the state constitution. After Indiana became a right-to-work state earlier this year, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dismantled many of the state’s collective bargaining laws in 2011, Michigan workers are pushing for a more permanent safeguard on their bargaining rights. Opponents argue in part that the proposal is misguided in trying to modify the state constitution for rights that are protected in other ways.

These are important issues in their own right, and they haven’t been neglected. But one point that has gone missing in the coverage is the tension between Prop. 1 and Prop. 2—one that enshrines union bargaining rights, another that could lead to the voiding of union contracts in some cities and school districts. Or, as the Michigan-based blogger Marcy Wheeler (who goes by the handle @emptywheel) put it on Twitter, “you could have Prop 2 pass, and Prop 1, meaning ability to join unions whose contracts get broken by EMs.” Is this a valid interpretation of how the proposals will function, if both are passed? Will there be a political or legal battle to negotiate which proposal trumps the other? Will it require a modification of one or both of the proposals, after they’ve been supported in their current form by the public?

It’s not clear, and that’s the problem. The ballot language itself doesn’t make the matter plain. Prop. 1 says that emergency managers will be required to “develop financial and operating plans, which may include modification or termination of contracts, (and) reorganization of government…” while Prop. 2 grants “public and private employees the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively through labor unions.” Prop. 2 does seem to anticipate a conflict with Prop. 1 or similar mandates by invalidating “existing or future state or local laws that limit the ability to join unions and bargain collectively, and to negotiate and enforce collective bargaining agreements…” But will that proviso apply in the “emergency” situations outlined by Prop. 1?

The proponents of Prop. 1 tend to oppose Prop. 2, and vice versa, so the ballot campaigns aren’t discussing the conflict; they’re just urging voters to reject one proposal and accept the other. It’s up to reporters, then, to fill the void. Despite the solid overall coverage, that hasn’t happened. That means that Michigan voters have less information than they might when considering these questions—and that tomorrow, if both proposals pass, the state’s citizens will be left to simply watch what happens next.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.