Published in Economic Development

Policy Outlook: Gerrymandering effort gives way to more state government reforms

BY Sunday, December 22, 2019 12:27pm

After securing a victory over partisan gerrymandering in the 2018 election, organizers behind the grassroots group Voters Not Politicians have their sights set on several more state government reforms in 2020.

The group was behind the push to end gerrymandering — when the controlling party in Lansing effectively draws new legislative districts every 10 years — and create a 13-member redistricting commission made up of randomly selected Republican, Democratic and non-party-affiliated voters. Sixty-one percent of Michigan voters approved the constitutional amendment last year.

While two lawsuits brought by Republican groups are challenging the redistricting commission process, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has proceeded with notifying Michigan residents about their eligibility to become members following a two-month public comment period this year. The commission is scheduled to draw districts for the 2022 election.

Nancy Wang, executive directory of Voters Not Politicians, expects legal challenges to the maps as well.

“Litigation is a fact of life we’re going to have to deal with,” Wang said. “Unfortunately, it’s a lengthy and costly process we just have to go through to protect the voters’ will.”

The newly drawn maps — though their final form is unclear — could have major implications for the makeup of the state Legislature and Michigan’s congressional delegation, particularly in areas like Kent County that are already trending more Democratic.

“We always focused voters on the process, not the outcome,” Wang said. “We can’t guarantee the maps are going to look a certain way, but when communities are no longer split or cracked for political purposes, you do get a reduction in the crazy shapes you get in Michigan. You get things like more competitive elections and new candidates.”

More reforms

For most of 2019, the group gathered feedback from volunteer organizers about which issues to tackle next. Among them are transparency efforts already launched in the state House that have hit roadblocks in the Senate, and vice versa. (Michigan ranks 50th among U.S. states on transparency because of exemptions in open records laws for top lawmakers and the governor and a lack of financial disclosure requirements, according to the Center for Public Integrity.)

In 2020, Voters Not Politicians plans to take on reforms to term limits, lame-duck sessions, the Freedom of Information Act, lawmakers’ financial disclosures and the revolving door of legislators-turned-lobbyists. It will likely involve a mix of constitutional amendments (which would be required to reform term limits and the lame-duck session) and legislation with buy-in from leading members of the Republican-held House and Senate.

Legislative attempts to address most of these issues have failed to gain traction.

Meanwhile, Michigan has among the strictest term limits in the nation, limiting representatives to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms. Voters approved term limits in 1992 by nearly 60 percent. 

Wang said the plan isn’t to abolish term limits, but rather make them “flexible” to allow lawmakers to gain expertise on various issues.

“If they had more time, they could focus on building relationships in each chamber and reach compromise on long-term issues like schools, water and infrastructure,” Wang said, adding that “cycling” through lawmakers “leads to more power held by lobbyists.”

The group also is eyeing reforms to lame-duck sessions, the roughly month-and-a-half-long period after elections and before the new members take office. Historically, controversial bills, such as Right to Work legislation and a deal to build a tunnel for the Line 5 pipeline, are rammed through during lame duck.

For other issues — including opening up the Legislature and governor’s office to the Freedom of Information Act and restricting the ability of lawmakers to become lobbyists shortly after leaving office — Wang said the group wants to work with lawmakers on a legislative package, as attempts so far have failed to clear both chambers.

The state’s largest business advocacy group has taken an interest in Voters Not Politicians’ efforts, notably when reports spread about the two groups meeting over term limits. Some reform advocates raised concerns about Voters Not Politicians working with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which actively fought the redistricting initiative. 

“I think it’s fair to say term limits have not been the panacea that proponents had hoped,” said Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley. He added that the Chamber doesn’t support repealing term limits, but rather retaining the current number of years and allowing lawmakers to serve in the same office.

Addressing other government transparency is “something we’re open to and working on at the Chamber,” Studley said.

Wang said it’s “great” that her group has had “frank conservations” with the Chamber about overlapping ideas on government reform, “but I’m under no illusion that our interests perfectly align.”

The overriding goal, she added, is improving Michigan’s ranking as among the worst in the nation for government accountability.

“There’s a real opportunity for Michigan to go from worst to first for integrity in state government,” Wang said. “What we’re trying to do in 2020 is completely transform state government into one that’s open, transparent and accountable.”

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