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Part-time Michigan Legislature could mean more power for bureaucrats and lobbyists

You might be asked to sign a petition next year to cut Michigan legislators’ pay and make their job part-time. The state constitution will have to be amended to accomplish that.

There could be some unintended consequences in doing that.

People love to hate politicians. There’s a popular feeling that while the Legislature is in session, no one’s life, liberty, or property is safe. People also complain about how much money politicians make -- and all those free lunches. Many people think legislators get so much pay and so many perks they don’t recognize the financial struggles of the average Michigan family.

So, a Tea Party Republican-affiliated group is proposing the idea that Michigan go back to the way it used to be. Before the 1963 constitution, the Legislature was a part-time gig.

Norm Kammeraad is Chair of the Committee to Restore Michigan’s Part-Time Legislature.

“It’s going to put these legislators back in the district with the citizens they represent and put their skin in this economic game that they’re attempting to invoke on all of us as residents of the state of Michigan,” Kammeraad said in a recorded conversation to air on Michigan Radio's Stateside with Cynthia Canty.

His group will start collecting signatures in January.  It appears people might like the idea.

This week Michigan Radio held an Issues and Ale event in Lansing (listen to the entire event here). Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta asked the crowd about it.

ZC: “Can I quickly see hands? If you saw that on the ballot today and were voting today, how many people would vote for a part-time Legislature?”

About 90% of the crowd raised their hands.

ZC: “Right. So, this is something that I think to a lot of folks sounds like a really great idea.” RP: “Can I interrupt for just a second? How many people here consider themselves Democrats? Raise your hands. Largely the same group of people.”
So, even self-identified Democrats like this part-time Legislature idea coming from Tea Party Republicans.

So, even self-identified Democrats like this part-time Legislature idea coming from Tea Party Republicans.

Norm Kammeraad says a part-time Legislature can get the job done in a shorter time. That would limit the time available for the Legislature to get up to the shenanigans people don’t like. Instead, the legislators will spend more time back in their districts with their constituents. Plus, that pay cut which will limit pay to $35,000 a year puts them on the same playing field as the average Michigan worker.

“You’re going to have all facets that are going to want to actually have the opportunity to serve. The difference is that they’re not going to be insulated with an $80,000 a year salary with over -- combined -- a $100,000 thousand in salary and benefits. They’re going  have their skin in this game,” Kammeraad said.

But not everyone thinks a part-time Legislature is a good idea.

“You know, Lansing has its problems, but radically altering the constitution and in this case neutering the people’s voice probably isn’t a good thing in the long run," said Dennis Lennox, a Republican strategist who writes a column for the Morning Sun, based in Mount Pleasant.

He wonders what kind of candidates would be willing to run for office for pay of $35,000 a year. Would they be more prone to be employed by groups or businesses wanting to influence public policy?

“You know, so we either have to create a situation where our legislators may be  --I hate to say it -- are getting food stamps or we’re giving them second and third jobs and then we’re creating situations where there’s all kinds of conflicts of interest. I mean, I just think when you start running down the list, this is a no-win,” Lennox said in a telephone interview.

The organizers of the petition drive to change the constitution stress the state will save money by cutting legislators’ pay. But, when you consider the state’s overall budget, legislative pay is not a lot. Of the $48 billion in the total budget, legislative pay amounts to about $11 million.

So, let’s put that into more manageable numbers. If you were making $48,000 a year and you made the cuts being talked about, you’d save about seven dollars.

Norm Kammeraad says that’s not the real point.

“Yes, we’re not saving much with the salary reduction, but what we are doing is we’re beginning to promote honest, true, citizen-driven legislation because they too, like us, will have skin in this game.”

Another concern about a part-time Legislature is the checks and balances of government.

The proponents of this plan point out most other states have part-time legislatures, but most of those states are smaller. They don’t have the variety of heavy-hitting industries, or the complex social issues found in Michigan.

Karl Kurtz is with the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s a resource to help legislatures across the nation operate better.

Kurtz has researched part-time and full-time legislatures (see here and here).

Kurtz says Michigan is a large state with a lot going on.

“The issue there is whether the Legislature can effectively balance the power of a very large executive branch and typically in most large population states the Legislature tends to be more full-time,” Kurtz said.

Kurtz notes part of the job of the Legislature is keeping an eye on all the bureaucrats in all the state agencies and offices, making sure that the people of the state are being served well by government. Limiting legislators to part-time and low pay makes working on behalf of the people in their district difficult.  

“You’ve got House members representing 90,000 people in Michigan and Senate members representing 260,000 people. So, that’s a very significant demand that is on the time of legislators in addition to session time,” Kurtz said.

The proponents of a part-time Legislature suggest being in their home districts actually will mean legislators will spend more time with their constituents. They’re more likely to sit down at the diner with the local folks to put together legislation.  In other states with part-time legislatures, often that's not what happens.

"States where legislators had smaller budgets, convened for shorter lengths of time, and spent less time crafting policy were more likely to enact ALEC model bills."

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is a researcher at Harvard University. In a guest blog he wrote for the Washington Post he found –quote- “states where legislators had smaller budgets, convened for shorter lengths of time, and spent less time crafting policy were more likely to enact ALEC model bills.” ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that lets big corporations write model legislation for legislators to take back to their states and introduce.  That’s happening in Michigan now. The research indicates it could happen more often with a part-time Legislature.

Norm Kammeraad says part-time legislatures work in other states. And it worked in Michigan before the 1963 constitution changed it. He says ever since then Michigan has been worse off. The state has lost economic steam, it’s lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, and it’s lost population after the Legislature became full-time. And he hopes to change that by changing the constitution.

“We can actually take our Legislature, change its mindset, get its skin in the game, bring this state back to its true greatness,” Kammeraad said.

The part-time Legislature and legislative pay cut seems to be a popular idea among people on the right and the left of the political spectrum.

But, assumptions about whether a full-time Legislature has led to the downfall of the state are based on a cause-and-effect theory that has not yet been backed by facts. It also ignores things such as the overall national economy, the overdependence on the auto industry in Michigan, and the influence of ever-growing campaign contributions and dark money on the political process.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.