BY ANNA LIZ NICHOLS, MICHIGAN ADVANCE
The Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a dispute over the state’s minimum wage law that dates back to 2018, when the Michigan legislature decided to adopt increases in the minimum wage outlined in a ballot initiative, but did so with the intent to water them down. Since then, proponents for the initiative have challenged the legislature’s ability to do so, taking that fight to the state’s highest court on Thursday.
Advocates behind the 2018 proposal, which among other things would have raised the minimum wage to $12 by 2022, had enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot and allow voters to decide the issue, but instead, the legislature passed the initiatives, with leadership indicating from the start that the plan was to quickly amend the changes.
As things stand, Michigan’s minimum wage sits at $10.10, although it will increase to $10.33 on January 1, 2024. However, under the current law, it would not surpass $12 an hour until 2030, eight years after the ballot initiative would have achieved that.
Proponents of raising the minimum wage assert that the 2018 Republican-led legislature bypassed the rights of the people of Michigan to pursue ballot proposals.
Mark Brewer, the attorney representing the groups behind the 2018 ballot initiative, said the legislature’s actions mark a concerning precedent where a “hostile legislature” can end the people’s ability to pursue ballot proposals entirely by allowing lawmakers to flagrantly “adopt and amend” initiatives rather than let voters decide.
“For the first time in the 105 years that the people of Michigan have enjoyed the Constitutional right to initiate laws in 2018, the Michigan legislature usurped that right by adopting two statutory initiative proposals that were headed for the ballot raising the minimum wage and providing paid sick time for the purpose of gutting them,” Brewer said.
But there aren’t rules against the legislature amending legislation it has adopted, Eric Restuccia deputy solicitor general representing the state said.
“This idea that somehow the people have been cut out of the process is wrong,” Restuccia said.
In response, Justice Richard Bernstein questioned Restuccia’s argument as being against the intent of the initiative process.
“Do you see how the general populace tends to lose faith?” he asked. “They did all this work. They put something on the ballot, they did everything that was required (and) the legislature said they were going to take it up, and then ultimately it ended the way everybody anticipated it would end.”
Justice David Viviano, however, said Bernstein’s query, while “tugging at the heartstrings,” didn’t take into account the multiple methods open to voters to change the law.
“Don’t the people have the further remedy of filing petitions to amend the (Michigan) Constitution and make this very change if they believe it is important enough to do so?” he asked.
When Bernstein questioned whether that was a viable option in a case like this, Viviano cut him off.
“It seems like it’s happened a lot lately,” said Viviano.
In 2022, Michigan voters approved three such amendments; changing state legislator’s term limits and financial disclosure requirements for state executive and legislative officials, expanding voting rights, including nine days of early voting and absentee voting for every election, and providing for a constitutional right to reproductive freedom.
Restuccia also said that Michigan residents who aren’t in support of the legislature’s amendments had recourse to file a referendum, also known as a citizen’s veto, to immediately halt the legislation from being in effect until the next election for which a majority of voters would have to vote to either repeal the law or keep it. In fact, it takes just over half as many signatures to get a referendum than it does to get an initiative on the ballot.
The state Court of Claims found in 2022 that the legislature had acted unconstitutionally but, the state Court of Appeals reversed that decision in January, affirming the constitutionality. However, in an opinion agreeing to the constitutionality, but raising other concerns, Judge Michael Kelly wrote that even though the legislature’s actions were legally permissible, the “ploy” of adopting the measures just to amend them is “anti-democratic” and likely not what the drafters of the state’s constitution contemplated the legislature would ever do.
“If the individuals responsible for this maneuver ever wonder why public opinion polls consistently cast politicians low when it comes to the virtue of trust, they need look no further than what they did here. It is a direct assault on one of the rights our founding fathers and the drafters of our state constitution held dear: the right of the citizens to petition their government,” Kelly said. “When the history of this legislature is written, it is difficult to imagine anybody saying that this was their finest hour.”
Alicia Renee Farris, who helped organize the 2018 ballot initiative, said after the oral arguments Thursday that whatever the Michigan Supreme Court decides will impact the future of other citizen-led efforts in the state and whether the people still have a right to petitions.
“Can the voice of the people be silenced with bait and switch tactics?” Farriss said. “That’s my concern for almost a half a million people who signed a petition in good faith, thinking that it was going to go somewhere and get on the ballot.. and for what has happened to happen. It was a maneuver that robbed them literally of that right.”
Jon King contributed to this report, which was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.
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