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Will Michigan Voters Add a Clean Energy Mandate to Their Constitution?

Prop 3 is the only clean energy issue on a state ballot. Michigan's standing as a battleground state is putting the measure under a national spotlight.

Nov 2, 2012
Bill Clinton and Prop 3

Update at 1:00 ET on Nov. 7, 2012: Proposal 3 was defeated at the polls Tuesday. Roughly 36 percent of voters supported the measure, while 64 percent voted against it.

When Michigan residents go to the polls on Tuesday they'll have a chance to do something that no other U.S. voter has ever done: enshrine a clean energy mandate in the State Constitution so politicians won't be able to weaken or abolish it at a whim. 

If the ballot initiative called Proposal 3 passes it would be the first time that a renewable energy standard—which 30 states have adopted—would be mandated by a Constitution. The standard would require utilities to generate at least 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Prop 3 could be "a template for a model that can be duplicated," said Richard Caperton, director of clean energy investment at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal research group. "It's a state issue with national implications."

The push for Prop 3 is coming from an umbrella group of 900 environmental organizations, labor and faith groups and individuals called Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs (MEMJ). The group launched in January and has attracted cash from more than a dozen national organizations as well as high-profile endorsements. This week, Bill Clinton, President Obama's star campaign surrogate, came out in support of the measure.

One reason for the interest is that Prop 3 is the only clean energy issue on a state ballot this election. At a time when attacks on Obama's green policies have national proponents playing defense in much of the country, "this is an opportunity to play offense," said Mark Fisk, a spokesperson for MEMJ.

Michigan's standing as a key battleground state in the presidential race is also putting their cause under a rare spotlight. If Michigan citizens choose to make clean energy a more permanent part of their future, the message could spread to citizens in other states and to leaders in Washington, supporters say.

MEMJ has raised about $12.3 million to pass Prop 3. That's roughly half of what opponents, led by the state's largest utilities, have spent to defeat it.

Opponents say that because constitutional amendments are difficult to undo, there's little way out if the policy proves too costly or complicated for utilities. "We just don't think that the constitution is the place to put this kind of detailed energy policy," said Jeff Holyfield of Consumers Energy, a utility that serves more than half the state and is helping lead the anti-Prop 3 campaign. "It would eliminate the flexibility that's crucial to managing the state's electric power system."

For proponents, however, handing the decision to citizens is the only shot at passing a renewable energy standard with muscle.

Four years ago, Michigan approved a standard requiring utilities to source 10 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2015. It's one of the lowest such mandates in the nation. Earlier this year, 10 Republican legislators tried to pass a bill to repeal it.

Currently, Michigan gets less than 5 percent of its power from renewables and employs 10,300 people in the wind and solar industries, according to estimates. MEMJ claims that upping the requirement to 25 percent would create 94,000 local jobs across the economy and attract $10.3 billion in investment. An August study by Michigan State University published a lower estimate of 74,000 jobs.

Fisk, the MEMJ spokesperson, said he believes lobbying state lawmakers to boost the standard would have gone nowhere. After the 2010 elections, Republican lawmakers gained control of the state House of Representatives and the governor's office, and maintained their lead in the Senate. But more than that, Fisk blamed the "clout and influence" of the state's big utilities that "transcends all political parties"—a charge utilities vehemently deny.

MEMJ got the greenlight to put Prop 3 on the ballot in early July after submitting more than a half a million signatures to state election officials.

"Increasing Michigan's use of renewable energy would have to happen by a vote of the people," Fisk said.

The Players

Opponents of Prop 3 formed their own umbrella organization in June, after it became clear that the measure would make it on the ballot. Clean Affordable Renewable Energy (CARE) is a group of more than 800 businesses, chambers of commerce, national fossil fuel industry groups, electric utilities and individuals.

The group warns the measure would cost taxpayers billions to implement and won't bring the economic growth that its backers are promising. It's "bad for customers and bad for Michigan," said Holyfield of Consumers Energy, one of CARE's biggest backers.

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