The Board of State Canvassers on Friday approved the petition form for Voters for Fair Use of Ballot Referendum, which does not have much financial backing. It will need nearly 323,000 valid signatures to put the constitutional amendment on the November 2014 election.
The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan — another grassroots organization without much money — also cleared the procedural hurdle. It will need about 258,000 signatures to initiate a bill and put it before voters if legislators do not act.
Michigan currently does not permit referendum drives if a law includes an appropriation, or spending measure. Lawmakers have added appropriations to controversial legislation, such as the right-to-work and revised emergency manager laws approved in December.
Critics say laws that have very little to do with spending money are being purposely shielded from a public vote.
Bill Lucas of Ferndale, who is leading the effort to make spending bills subject to referendum, said the right-to-work law was the final straw.
He already was upset that voters cannot repeal the 2011 laws that redrew congressional and legislative districts and did away with a price tag requirement for retail items. He also is worried grocers could push to eliminate Michigan's 10-cent deposit on bottles and cans.
The item-pricing repeal "got through and it was unchallengeable because there's a hole in the system," Lucas, a Democrat, said in a phone interview. "I didn't see anyone taking action and I decided to do it myself."
Collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot is difficult without paying circulators or having a large number of volunteers. Lucas, who said he is on leave from a systems analyst job, said he hopes to receive some financial support for the ballot drive and plans to talk to "good government" groups. He declined to elaborate.
The most recent referendum vote in Michigan was in November, when voters repealed a 2011 emergency manager law that gave the state more power in financially strapped cities and schools. A subsequent version of the law passed by Republicans and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in December included a $5.8 million appropriation to cover emergency manager salaries, staffing, implementation and education costs.
Supporters say the spending is legitimate because local governments complained about having to pay manager salaries. The right-to-work law that bans requiring union dues or fees as a condition of employment includes a $2 million appropriation for extra staff and resources needed to implement the law and educate employers, employees and unions.
The other petition approved Friday involves hydraulic fracturing, a technique used by the energy industry to extract oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals.
Opponents who want to prohibit the technique, commonly known as fracking, fell well short of the signatures needed for the 2012 ballot. This time, they are taking a route that requires fewer signatures.
"The 'ban fracking' movement is a worldwide movement," said LuAnne Kozma of Charlevoix. "In Michigan, we are leading it by citizens. It's not by the established groups that are out there that one might think are the environmental leaders of the state. We are a people's movement."
Last month, the state election board also approved a petition to be circulated by animal welfare activists upset about a new law that designates the gray wolf as a game animal.
Organizers of the wolf drive need at least 161,300 signatures to hold a referendum but have a goal of 225,000 in case some are ruled invalid.