DETROIT – An attempt to kill a Michigan law that gives emergency managers sweeping powers to fix poor communities' finances will appear on the November ballot, the state Supreme Court said Friday, handing unions a major victory in their clash with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
The law passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Snyder allows the governor to appoint people to run cities and school districts that are broke. Managers have sweeping authority to cut spending, sell assets and tear up contracts without the approval of elected officials.
Unions representing workers who were laid off or had their pay cut by managers repeatedly have challenged the law in court but lost. They see a statewide vote as another chance to get rid of it.
Republicans control Michigan's highest court, 4-3, but GOP Justice Mary Beth Kelly broke from the majority in this case and provided the crucial vote to order the Board of State Canvassers to put the referendum on the ballot.
The Supreme Court was asked to decide a technical issue: Did the petitions used to gather signatures have the type size required by law? Kelly said they did, while three Democrats voted to uphold a decision by the appeals court. Combined, those four votes mean the manager issue will go to the voters.
"This case well demonstrates that tension between constitutional interests: the right to a republican form of government versus a constitutional process that allows a small minority to suspend the enactments of that government," Kelly wrote.
Emergency managers are in place in Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac and Ecorse, as well as in public schools in Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights.
But it's unclear how much longer they will serve. The law will be suspended once the Board of State Canvassers officially places the referendum on the ballot.
Snyder said he respects the public's right to have a vote but warned that solutions for distressed local governments will be even "more painful" when the law is suspended.
"Suspending the law limits the state's ability to offer early intervention and assistance, and eliminates important tools that emergency managers need to address financial emergencies as quickly and efficiently as possible," the governor said in a statement.
Stand Up for Democracy, the coalition that turned in more than 200,000 signatures, was ecstatic over the court decision.
"It's time for emergency managers around the state to pack their bags and go home until the people have their say in November," spokesman Greg Bowens said. "We believe that the law is a power grab by Lansing that usurps democratically elected officials on a local level. Democracy is messy but it works."
State Treasurer Andy Dillon said the governor is prepared to reappoint managers in affected communities, but they would operate under the previous law and have fewer powers. He said Michael Brown in Flint would have to be replaced because he recently was the mayor, which disqualifies him under the old law.
Although Detroit doesn't have an emergency manager, the possibility of appointing one led Mayor Dave Bing and the city council to agree to a deal with the governor that put several strict requirements in place to repair the city's finances last spring, especially pay cuts. Bing believes many changes still will stick.
"The bottom line is the city's fiscal challenges remain, and Public Act 4 was one tool to help us," Bing said, referring to the formal title of the manager law. "Without PA 4, we will continue to execute our fiscal restructuring plan."
Not everyone agrees. Police union attorney Donato Iorio said the law "gave birth" to the financial agreement between Detroit and the state and anything that resulted from it should be "null and void" when the law is suspended before the fall vote. Officers and other city workers recently were forced to take a 10 percent pay cut and pay more for health care.
Associated Press writer Jeff Karoub contributed to this story.
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