How Far Would Michigan Law’s Repeal Turn Back the Clock?

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 24, 2012 3 min read
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One education-related ballot measure that I couldn’t fit into my upcoming print story on election-day decisions voters face is Proposal 1 in Michigan. The referendum challenges Public Act 4, passed in 2011 with the backing of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Public Act 4 contains the extremely controversial provision that allows emergency managers, who are tasked with directing fiscal overhauls in financially-troubled municipalities and school districts, to toss out previously-negotiated contracts between public employees and local governments and school boards.

The measure could be repealed if the majority of the public votes “no,” but what does that mean exactly? One answer to this question is that when voters decide to eliminate a law, the result isn’t necessarily 100 percent clarity.

You’ll notice that the link I gave you to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ database that the description of Proposal 1 ends with: “Repeal Public Act 72 of 1990.” Public Act 72 established rules for emergency managers and what they were permitted and not permitted to do. The summary of the law at the Michigan government website says clearly that they are not permitted to get rid of labor contracts without negotiating with the relevant unions.

However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette disagrees that if Public Act 4 is repealed, the 1990 law comes off the books as well. In an Aug. 6 opinion, Schuette concluded that Public Act 72 from 1990 “will either cease with the approval of Public Act 4, or become permanent with the Act’s disapproval.”

Citing this opinion, Michael Van Beek, the director of education policy at the conservative-leaning Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank, concluded that many people wrongly assume that a repeal of Public Act 4 means that emergency managers will be abolished. Van Beek said that under the 1990 version of the law, “Emergency managers had some success, but it was always a struggle.”

Now, it’s worth pointing out that the description of Public Act 72 on Michigan’s government website introduces moral hazard as a reason the managers were not given the authority to abolish collectively bargained contracts. The description says the act “offers no safe harbor to units of local government seeking to avoid improvidently entered into obligations.”

Not everyone agrees with Schuette. As this Detroit Free Press article details, others officials, such as members of Detroit’s school board, don’t agree that emergency managers will still be allowed to remain on their jobs if voters decide to repeal Public Act 4.

Not surprisingly, teachers’ unions and other groups with similar political views are seeking to have Public Act 4 removed. In the August edition of the Michigan Education Association’s magazine, the teachers’ union recommends a “no” vote on Proposal 1 (which would repeal Public Act 4).

It also details the actions of the emergency managers in the Muskegon Heights school district, Don Weatherspoon, and criticizes him for terminating staff contracts. It described his solution disparagingly as: “Sell the entire school district to Mosaica Education, a for-profit, privately-owned charter company.”

By the way, the teachers’ union recommends a “yes” vote on Proposal 2, which would “create a new right to collective bargaining” in Michigan. Snyder and Schuette are prominent opponents of Proposal 2, the Detroit News reported.

I’ll leave you with one more notch from the emergency manager timeline: Michigan’s original emergency manager law was signed in 1988, not 1990. And it was signed by then-Gov. James Blanchard, a Democrat. But that original version of the law doesn’t appear to be in play.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.