Some historians and political scientists believe Michigan’s first constitution was the best one we’ve ever had. It was a simple, easy to understand, and workable document that was hashed out in a small town called Detroit back in the spring of 1835.
That first constitution provided for the election of only the governor, lieutenant governor, and the legislature. That meant the voters didn’t have to do what they do today -- sort through a mass of names they mostly didn’t know for offices they barely understand.
That first constitution also said the legislature should encourage “the promotion of intellectual, scientific and agricultural improvement.”
Can’t knock that. We’ve had four constitutions since then. Over time, each became encrusted with barnacles, both because of changing ideas of democracy and because of a series of amendments.
The last time we overhauled the document was in the early 1960s. Prior to that, some state senate districts had ten times as many people as others. The U.S. Supreme Court fixed that, but the 1963 Constitution streamlined and improved some other processes of government. It worked pretty well, for a while, but now it needs help.
The governmental process in Michigan is breaking down, partly because of a series of amendments that are crippling the legislature’s ability to respond to changing events and sudden crises. Even worse, term limits have largely destroyed the power and effectiveness of the legislature. Last week the Democrats chose a Speaker of the House. The candidate who won has been in the legislature for only two years, and has to be gone in four more.
He defeated a man who has been there four years and will be gone forever in two more. There is no institutional memory and little experiential knowledge. The people who run the place are bureaucrats and lobbyists. Face it: When we need a statewide vote on whether to spend park funds on the parks, the system isn’t working.
For years I was convinced having a state constitutional convention was a dreadful idea. My fear was that the process would be hijacked and we’d have a distorted document written by and for the special interests. But then I realized that we effectively have that now. Here’s what I suggest;
Have the highly respected and non-partisan Citizens’ Research Council design a model constitution. Then, over, the next four years, have the Center for Michigan, Phil Power’s new “think and do” center, take on the task of figuring out ways to sell it to the people.
Then, campaign for approval in 2010 for a new con-con, or constitutional convention. There is minimal risk here, by the way. It will take more than a year to write a document.
After that we get to vote on it. If the process produces something worse than we have now, the voters can always turn it down.
Or you can resign yourself to lawmakers who don’t have a clue, and frequent statewide votes to decide what kind of birds we can hunt. There must be a better way.