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Michigan politicians make a bipartisan move to take a choice away from voters

Rep. Mark Schauer, Michigan's Democratic candidate for governor.
Rep. Mark Schauer, Michigan's Democratic candidate for governor.
Douglas Graham/CQ-Roll Call Group

This fall, the Michigan electorate was expected to vote on whether to raise the state's minimum wage from $7.40 an hour to $10.10. The activist coalition Raise Michigan has been collecting signatures for months, and says it easily has enough. And according to one poll, the measure had 65 percent support.

But Michigan's state Senate is trying to take the choice out of voters' hands. Last week, the chamber passed its own, weaker minimum wage increase, to $9.20 an hour by 2017 — and the way they did it was ingenious. Rather then modifying the existing minimum wage bill, senators repealed it entirely, and replaced it with a new law. The consequence is that the ballot initiative's language, written months ago, now amends a law that no longer exists — likely making the initiative null and void.

This isn't a story of Republican perfidy. Though the measure was spearheaded by the GOP's Senate majority leader, and the Democratic leader initially condemned the move, she eventually changed her mind. The chamber's Democrats supported the bill 10-2, while Republicans were much more split, voting 14-12. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled state House has also been unenthusiastic about the bill, which means it could die there. The state's business groups remain opposed, saying even a $1.80 increase is too high. And while Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has not yet said whether he'd sign the bill, his Democratic opponent Mark Schauer praised it, attended the vote, and was even photographed hugging the Senate GOP leader afterward. (Schauer's own platform called for an increase to $9.25, not $10.10, which explains why he declared victory.)

Why did Senate Democrats decide to vote for the bill? According to Democratic Senate leader Gretchen Whitmer, the GOP was intent on blocking the minimum wage referendum somehow or other. "It was disappointing to cast this vote knowing that this bill will interfere with their ballot initiative, but it was clear that my Republican colleagues were going to do so with or without our support," Whitmer wrote, adding, "In the end, I would rather fight to make the bill a close approximation of what our workers deserve than nothing at all." But there may also have been political motivations at work. "Even though the minimum wage proposal is widely seen as a turnout tool to help Democrats bring out their voters, there are some Democrats who question whether the money, time, and other resources spent on a ballot drive might be better spent on helping Democratic candidates," write Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta of Michigan Radio.

But taking the choice out of voters' hands has already proved controversial. A member of Raise Michigan, the activist coalition, said that the bill "undermines democracy." The minimum wage bill passed by the Michigan Senate will never become law," predicted Jack Lessenberry of Michigan Radio, who added that the ploy could "end up driving angry Democratic voters to the polls."

GOP Senate leader Randy Richardville has said that laws tend to be more carefully written than ballot initiatives, so he preferred to handle the increase in the legislature. A spokesperson for Richardville added, "His chief concern was making sure any increase was responsible and in keeping with the progress of our Michigan economy. He worked with the other side to find a reasonable compromise." The fate of the measure is now up to Michigan's state House.