There’s some­thing rot­ten in the state of Michi­gan. It’s hard to write about what’s hap­pen­ing there in any­thing less than extreme terms. What’s hap­pen­ing is awfully extreme.

Across Amer­ica, newly-​​emboldened Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tures have been enact­ing a series of laws that limit vot­ing rights, limit union rights, restrict mar­riage rights, cut off access to abor­tion and other health­care ser­vices, and oth­er­wise put in place a far-​​right agenda of social engi­neer­ing. (Even Newt Gin­grich rec­og­nized this ten­dency on a national level.) In Michi­gan, they’ve gone sev­eral steps fur­ther, elim­i­nat­ing democ­racy in many of their larger cities, and vio­lat­ing their own Con­sti­tu­tion in order to do it.

It’s a com­pli­cated story, but it starts and ends with the Republican-​​controlled leg­is­la­ture and with Rick Sny­der, the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor. There were pro­tec­tions put in place to pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing. But those safe­guards are being will­fully ignored.

In the early 1960s, Michigan’s Con­sti­tu­tion was amended (see Arti­cle IV, para­graph 27) to slow the imple­men­ta­tion of new laws. This would allow laws to be recon­sid­ered, mod­i­fied if they needed to be, and even chal­lenged in court before tak­ing effect. Accord­ing to Michigan’s Con­sti­tu­tion, no law can go into effect sooner than sixty days after the end of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion in which the law was passed. Since the Michi­gan leg­is­la­ture has year-​​long ses­sions, this means most laws should not take effect until late March or early April of the year fol­low­ing their pas­sage. An addi­tional pro­vi­sion takes emer­gen­cies into account. By a two-​​thirds super­ma­jor­ity, the sixty-​​day pro­vi­sion can be waived, and laws can be put into “imme­di­ate effect.”

Since Repub­li­cans gained con­trol of both state Houses and the Gov­er­nor­ship in the elec­tion of 2010, nearly every­thing has been seen as an emer­gency. Over 96 per­cent of the laws enacted by the cur­rent state leg­is­la­ture have been sub­ject to “imme­di­ate effect” — usu­ally by a show of hands of who­ever hap­pens to be in the con­gres­sional cham­ber at the time the Repub­li­can leader decides to call for a vote.

Five hun­dred forty-​​six bills out of five hun­dred sixty-​​six — all but twenty — have been enacted under “imme­di­ate effect.” Michi­gan has had a lot of emergencies.

Okay, but so what? State leg­is­la­tures are usu­ally about road repair and renam­ing libraries, right? This isn’t a big deal, is it?

Yes, it’s a very big deal. One of the laws enacted under “imme­di­ate effect” is a rad­i­cal expan­sion of the state’s “Emer­gency Man­ager” law. This allows the state to take over cities, coun­ties, or other local gov­ern­ments, fir­ing the duly-​​elected offi­cials, and appoint­ing a dictator/​czar to over­see oper­a­tions, leav­ing the peo­ple of those areas with no local elected representation.

Another recent Michi­gan “emer­gency” law stripped pub­lic employ­ees of health care for same-​​sex domes­tic partners.

Another for­bids research asso­ciates at Michigan’s uni­ver­si­ties from form­ing a union. In a bla­tant — and suc­cess­ful — attempt to cir­cum­vent the legal process, the bill was signed on the same day that the Michi­gan Employee Rela­tions Com­mis­sion was sched­uled to rule on whether research assis­tants should be clas­si­fied as pub­lic employ­ees enti­tled to collective-​​bargaining rights.

The Michi­gan leg­is­la­ture will almost cer­tainly use the “Imme­di­ate Effect” gim­mick to force through a num­ber of pro­posed voter sup­pres­sion pro­vi­sions, just in time for the 2012 election.

But the state Con­sti­tu­tion allows for these laws to take imme­di­ate effect, pro­vided they receive over two-​​thirds of the leg­isla­tive vote. So what’s the prob­lem? The prob­lem is that none of these laws were put in place through a legal appli­ca­tion of “imme­di­ate effect.” The Democ­rats in both houses of the state gov­ern­ment have been vot­ing in a united block, and the Repub­li­cans do not have a two-​​thirds major­ity. It is math­e­mat­i­cally impos­si­ble for “imme­di­ate effect” to have been used in any of these laws, accord­ing to the state Con­sti­tu­tion. It has been sim­ply the whim of the Repub­li­can chair.

With­out the “imme­di­ate effect” pro­vi­sion, none of these laws would yet have gone into effect. But the Gov­er­nor has already used the new — and not yet Con­sti­tu­tion­ally in effect — “Emer­gency Man­ager” law to fire the elected gov­ern­ment of the cities of Flint, Pon­tiac, Ben­ton Har­bor, and Ecorse, and the offi­cials in the pub­lic school sys­tems of Detroit and High­land Park. The city of Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, only nar­rowly avoided this fate and still may be sub­ject to it. These juris­dic­tions are now under the rule of sin­gle indi­vid­u­als appointed by the State.

These “emer­gency man­agers” can:

  • Hire/​fire local gov­ern­ment employees
  • Rene­go­ti­ate, ter­mi­nate, mod­ify labor con­tracts with state trea­sury approval
  • Sell, lease, or pri­va­tize local assets with state trea­sury approval
  • Revise con­tract obligations
  • Change local bud­gets with­out local leg­isla­tive approval
  • Ini­ti­ate munic­i­pal bank­ruptcy proceedings
  • Hire sup­port staff

… all sim­ply by mak­ing uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tions, with no elected offi­cial rep­re­sent­ing the inter­ests or will of the cit­i­zens. The deci­sions are over­seen only by the State Trea­surer, who is the same per­son that appoints the “emer­gency man­agers.” (If you want to keep that pow­er­ful posi­tion, you do what the Trea­surer wants you to do.)

This breath­tak­ing seizure of power is being chal­lenged in the courts. The ACLU has chal­lenged the revo­ca­tion of domes­tic part­ner ben­e­fits. The Obama Cam­paign has chal­lenged exist­ing Michi­gan attempts at voter sup­pres­sion. The Emer­gency Man­ager law is also being chal­lenged through a citizen’s ref­er­en­dum drive — which is itself the sub­ject of a chal­lenge due to use of a sup­pos­edly incor­rect font size (I’m not joking).

Michi­gan Repub­li­cans are fight­ing back. They are, for exam­ple, prepar­ing to enact a law pre­vent­ing the drive to repeal “Emer­gency Man­agers” from appear­ing on the Novem­ber 2012 bal­lot, despite the duly-​​executed col­lec­tion of sig­na­tures. Almost cer­tainly, this law pre­vent­ing the restora­tion of democ­racy will be itself enacted under the bogus “imme­di­ate effect” sham.

Remem­ber when the Tea Partiers were warn­ing us in 2009 and 2010 about the dan­gers of los­ing our lib­erty and of the impend­ing threats to our democ­racy? This is what it looks like when it happens.