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Michigan State Supreme Court Weighs Legislative Tactic to Avoid Ballot Measures

Republican legislators used a controversial method called 'adopt and amend.'

Republican legislators used a controversial method called 'adopt and amend.' Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | City manager in Colorado fired amid whistleblowing scandal … Washington considers per-mile driving tax … New York passes farmworker rights law.

The Michigan Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week about whether a tactic used by Republican state lawmakers to avoid sending ballot measures to the voters is constitutional. At issue is the strategy called “adopt and amend” in the state. In the last legislative session, two ballot initiatives—one that would have raised the minimum wage and one that increased the amount of paid sick leave for workers—were not sent to a broader vote on the November 2018 ballot, but instead adopted by the legislature with the intention of amending them later on. The move was widely criticized by Democrats, who called it a “procedural gimmick” because it allows the legislature to change the proposals significantly with only a majority vote, instead of the three-fourths vote needed to change a publicly passed ballot measure. State Sen. Curtis Hertel, a Democrat, called the move a “bait-and-switch” meant to trick voters. "I don't know who you all think you're fooling, but it's not this side of the aisle. And it's certainly not the voters," he said. Republicans have asked the Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion on the matter, with the Attorney General’s office arguing both sides. Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud argued that allowing this practice “would create a permanent escape route” for the legislature to circumvent voter-passed initiatives, while Deputy Solicitor General Eric Restuccia argued that the court had no jurisdiction over the issue because the revisions to the law have already taken place, suggesting that the public “should vote the rascals out” if they believe that Republicans acted improperly. But John Bursch, who represented the Republican legislative majority, encouraged the court to issue an opinion on the matter. “If the legislature is going to upend what the people actually want, then they are not going to be in the majority of the legislature very long,” Bursch said. Danielle Atkinson, chair of MI Time to Care, the group that pushed for a ballot initiative to change paid sick leave laws, said that they are prepared to put the issue back on the ballot if the ruling isn’t favorable. “I hope that they find adopt and amend unconstitutional, and that we can have a paid sick time law and a minimum wage law that reflect the will of the people,” she said. [MLive.com; WILX]

CITY MANAGER | The city manager of Brighton, Colorado, was fired from his position by a split vote of city council members who said they had “lost faith” in him. The move has sparked controversy, however, given that Philip Rodriguez recently blew the whistle on the city for accumulating $70 million in water overcharges and calling for an audit into city finances. Rodriguez called his firing a cover-up. "When I, as a city manager, persisted with the council calling for a forensic audit, and as an individual citizen notifying state and federal law enforcement, the council chose to fire me for blowing the whistle. And yet I was told tonight, and it was on record that there was no cause for my termination,” he said. Rodriguez also claimed that he saw more illegal budgeting practices in the city than he had originally revealed. The city council last week voted to place Rodriguez on administrative leave after he revealed the water overcharges. Councilmember Clint Blackhurst said that “there has been so much misinformation and so many allegations that are not substantiated by fact,” leading him to lose “any confidence in [Rodriguez’s] leadership right now.” Mayor Ken Kreutzer said Rodriguez’s firing was unrelated to water issue, and was instead about his leadership of his department, but acknowledged that the timing was suspicious. “I know it’s bad timing that the two are happening simultaneously. When is it ever good timing for something like this? I can’t—in good conscience—let it go on,” he said. Other city council members have since accused the mayor of colluding with city employees to hide the water overcharges. [ABC 7 Denver; KDVR]

PER-MILE TAX | Washington state could replace its gas tax with a per-mile system called a “road usage charge.” The change is expected to cost most state residents more than the gas tax, and was proposed because of lagging gas tax revenue. State Sen. Rebecca Saldana, a Democrat and the vice chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said that more fuel-efficient vehicles have eroded the state’s ability to rely on the gas tax to raise money for infrastructure needs. “There has to be a sustainable source of funding,” said Saldana. The Transportation Commission will first examine the proposal, and then make suggestions to the legislature about the change. The chairman of the commission, Jerry Litt, said it’s too early to say how the commission will vote. “I’m not prepared to say I’m 100 percent for it or 100 percent against it, until I know what the operational costs are going to be. But so far, it does seem a fair system to put in place,” he said. As it stands, Washington has the second-highest gas tax in the country, at 49 cents per gallon; the federal government adds an additional 18 cents per gallon to fund highway, bridge, and road repairs. If Washington changes their policy, drivers would put plug-in devices in their cars that track their mileage. [The News Tribune; Q13 FOX; New Castle News]

FARMWORKER RIGHTS | New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a farmworker rights bill into law that will give those workers benefits that others in the state get. Cuomo, a Democrat, called the measure a “milestone in the crusade for social justice” and said that farmworkers “will finally, finally have the same protections that other workers have had for 80 years." The new law gives farmworkers in the state unemployment and disability insurance, worker’s compensation, overtime pay, paid family leave, and the right to collectively bargain. A study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, found that the law will likely result in a pay increase for farmworkers of $34 to $95 per week. Opponents of the law, including Grow NY Farms, a coalition of agriculture groups, said the measure will result in the closure of farms and higher produce prices at the supermarket. “This measure does not create a path that will assure an economically viable New York agriculture industry," the group said in a statement. But proponents, including labor groups, said the measure is long overdue. "Farmworkers are finally getting basic labor rights including the right to organize a union [and] a mandatory day of rest," said Mario Cilento, president of the NY AFL-CIO. [WSKG; Democrat and Chronicle]

TERM LIMITS | Bills were introduced in 20 states this year related to legislative term limits. Thirteen states tried to introduce term limits for the first time, and New York introduced the most bills (12) to limit how many terms a lawmaker can serve. Legislators in two states tried to increase the term limits for legislators, including Oklahoma, which hoped to raise the limit from 12 years to 20 years, and Missouri, which hoped to allow legislators to surpass the 16-year limit if they were a write-in candidate who did not campaign. Despite the significant number of bills, only one state, Arkansas, passed term limit legislation this session. That means voters will consider the idea on the 2020 ballot. The amendment to the state constitution would limit legislators to 12 consecutive years of service. Currently, legislators in the state can serve 16 total years. [NCSL]

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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