Michigan lawmakers are running out of time to pass legislation expanding civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community before a planned ballot measure with wide business support is potentially approved for the November 2022 election.
The Secretary of State is now validating signatures for Fair and Equal Michigan’s ballot initiative to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The campaign submitted more than 480,000 signatures in October, and needs 340,000 to make it on the ballot. The state could issue a ruling on the signatures by late spring or early summer, according to campaign officials. If approved, the measure would go to the State Board of Canvassers for certification to get on the November 2022 ballot.
The state Legislature would then have 40 days to adopt the proposal or send it to voters. It could also put forward a competing proposal.
Campaign organizers expect to know definitively within the next couple of months whether the question will be on November 2022 ballots.
Late last month, the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign announced support for the initiative from chambers of commerce across the state, including in Lansing, Flint, Jackson, Midland, Saginaw and Traverse City. Business advocates in Southwest Michigan, Detroit and Ann Arbor previously endorsed the proposal.
However, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is still holding out hope for a legislative approach and is at this point withholding support for the ballot measure.
“We are supporting a negotiated, legislative solution,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber.
He cited concerns about the Republican-held Legislature potentially putting a competing ballot question forward, as well as potential legal challenges to the ballot proposal if it’s approved by voters.
“To avoid that divisiveness, the Grand Rapids Chamber has been trying to push a legislative solution on this issue,” Johnston said.
While campaign organizers say the measure is on solid legal footing if approved, they don’t discount the potential for lawmakers to obfuscate the ballot measure.
“Fair and Equal Michigan very much wants a legislative solution as well,” said campaign spokesperson Josh Hovey. “The very first goal of putting this on the ballot is to force the Legislature to come to a vote. And if any business organization does want a legislative solution, we welcome them to encourage the Legislature to take this up now. But the window for a legislative solution is going to close very, very quickly.”
It’s also unlikely that the Republican-held Legislature would be successful — as it has been in years past — at adopting the proposal and then amending it to include religious exemptions, as some top lawmakers have previously advocated. That approach would likely earn a veto from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Gov. Whitmer is the one safeguard we have against the adopt-and-amend strategy,” Hovey said.
The Grand Rapids Chamber is among a growing number of business advocates and companies supporting an Elliott-Larsen expansion, which they argue is about fairness and also attracting and retaining talent. The ballot measure is backed by dozens of companies including Herman Miller Inc., Founders Brewing Co., Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Consumers Energy, Kellogg Co., Steelcase Inc. and General Motors, to name a few.
Even with that widespread support, the Chamber’s position suggests there’s still some disagreement about how to get it done.
“When the hourglass completely runs out on a legislative solution, we’ll take up whether to endorse the (ballot) proposal and figure out whether it’s the best option to advance this discussion,” Johnston said.
The campaign is aligned with that approach, Hovey said, but noted that time is running out.
“Also like the Grand Rapids Chamber, we’re very much looking for a legislative solution,” Hovey said. “But the time for that is now.”