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Michigan voters could decide casino locales, emergency manager law on 2012 ballot

Sheesh. We’ve already seen a ton of dueling political TV ads already, and we’re not even into summer -- which officially begins this year on June 20, the day with the most sunlight in the year.

Regardless of the season, you might say we need a little more light shed on our political process. And the way things are shaping up, you’ll need a very bright light to understand the coming ballot -- and a strong stomach to endure the ads about it. We're in for commercials not only from political parties, but from a myriad of sometimes shadowy interest groups.

That’s because there could be as many as 11 statewide issues on the November ballot, which will clearly take a lot of studying. And we are bound to be in for a whole lot more ads, many of them from the “super PACs” funded mostly by a bunch of bored billionaires.

Before we get to the substance, here’s a short civics lesson. In order to get on the statewide ballot, advocates have to collect a certain number of valid signatures, In most cases, the deadline for the November ballot this year is July 9. But the rules vary.

Essentially, there are three different kinds of proposal, each with considerably different ballot requirements:

* Amendments to the Michigan Constitution. That currently takes about 322,000 valid signatures, or exactly 10 percent of the vote cast for governor in the most recent election. One example that people are trying to get on the ballot this year: A proposal to require either a two-thirds “supermajority” vote of each chamber of the Legislature, or a statewide popular vote, to raise taxes in any form.

* Citizen initiatives, which require 258,088 signatures, or 8 percent of the ballots cast for governor. There won’t be any of these on this year’s ballot, since the deadline here was May 30.

* Finally, there are referenda, attempts to repeal a law already enacted or to allow a law to be adopted only after a public vote. Getting a referendum on a ballot requires only 161,305 signatures, exactly half the number of a constitutional amendment. An example is the campaign to overturn Public Act 4, the emergency manager law, which was adopted last this year by the Legislature and is fiercely opposed by organized labor and other groups.

Bill Ballenger, the publisher of "Inside Michigan Politics," says that “voters may face their biggest load of proposals in at least a decade.” That’s why these days you’re seeing at the mall so many smiling folks with clipboards in hand. They’re hoping to get you to sign their petition. Few, however, are doing this out of the idealistic goodness of their hearts. They’re often paid -- ranging from $2 to $4 per signature -- by whichever special interest is behind the campaign.

But how does the average harried voter keep all these things straight? Good question. The number and range of items still in play to get on the ballot are enormous, and often bewildering.

Besides the three examples mentioned above, there’s Matty Moroun’s bid to require a statewide vote on whether to build any new international bridge -- another of his increasingly desperate attempts to preserve his Ambassador Bridge’s monopoly over the Detroit River crossing.

Another proposal would outlaw horizontal hydraulic fracturing -- “fracking” -- for oil and gas exploration.

Two separate efforts could, if they both get on the ballot and are approved by the voters, authorize new casinos in, get this: Birch Run Township, Clinton Township, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Pontiac, Romulus, DeWitt Township, Clam Lake Township, Benton Harbor, Lansing, Mount Clemens and Saginaw.

Nor is that all. Another would generally legalize marijuana, while another would require training for home health care providers and allow collective bargaining rights for in-home health workers.

Labor unions are touting a proposed constitutional amendment that would insert and protect “collective bargaining rights” in the Michigan Constitution for both public and private sector workers. Backed by most Democrats as well, the measure would rule out any effort to outlaw the union shop, the so-called “Right to Work” effort.

There also is a slightly mysterious proposal that would recognize the “right of the people to alter or abolish government.”

Speaking of constitutional amendments, according to "Inside Michigan Politics," 69 attempts to amend the Michigan Constitution have made it to the ballot since our present charter was adopted in 1963. Of these, 32 have been adopted and 37 were rejected.

How about initiatives? During that time, 13 initiatives have qualified for the ballot. Seven were approved by voters; six were turned down.

As for the 20 referenda that have qualified since 1963, the score is even: 10 approved; 10 rejected.

All this gives new meaning to the term, “bedsheet ballot." My wife, Kathy, and I are entitled by age to vote absentee. Frankly, it seems more and more absurd not to do so. No doubt we’ll need a fair amount of time around the kitchen table to mark our ballots come November. We aren’t big TV viewers,  but we’re already blinking in preparation for the onslaught of ads.

There is hope, though.

Thanks to its popular Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan will be keeping an eye on all the claims and counter-claims, calling “foul," “technical foul," “flagrant foul" or “no foul.

First launched in the 2010 campaign, it already is blowing the whistle on dubious or false claims this year.

Some of us hope the threat of shaming via the Truth Squad will improve Michigan’s political culture. In addition, we’ve got more artillery: The Center’s trained staff and other journalists who work with us will be at work trying to ferret out the facts so that we can make informed judgments for ourselves.

Regardless, the Truth Squad represents an even-handed attempt to bring some sanity into what is bound to be a pretty wacky political season. But every voter has a responsibility, as well, to do their best to be informed about the candidates and issues.

That’s what democracy is all about.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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