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Calley's part-time folly

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

H.L. Mencken, the great early 20th century journalist, was a militant atheist, so I don’t suppose there’s any chance his shade is flitting around Mackinac Island this week.

But if it was, it would have been laughing at Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley’s grand announcement yesterday that he would lead a campaign to give us a part-time legislature. That instantly reminded me of Mencken’s famous observation that “for every human problem there is a solution that is neat, plausible - and wrong.”

Now, we do indeed have a dysfunctional legislature. For years, they’ve failed to fix the state’s infrastructure, which is falling apart.

Yesterday, our full-time elected representatives seemed mainly interested in passing a law so that people can carry concealed guns without a permit or any safety training.

Cutting these characters’ pay, denying them pensions and allowing them to meet for only 90 days a year seems too good for them. But Calley has come up with the one “solution” that would almost certainly make matters worse.

What’s really going on is this: Calley wants to run for governor next year, but he is a severe underdog to Bill Schuette, the attorney general. Schuette, who has been running hard, if unofficially, for a long time, was first elected to Congress when Calley was seven years old.

The lieutenant governor not only has to cope with the stigma of being the number two man in the administration that poisoned Flint, he could walk into any major shopping mall with a good chance that nobody would recognize him.

He badly needs a vehicle to get noticed.

So yesterday, in language that seemed to mimic the speaking style of his party’s maximum leader, the 39-year-old Calley promised “the most high-tech, effective grassroots campaign to amend Michigan’s Constitution, ever.”

A bigly huge effort, in other words.

Surrounded by a corps of twenty-somethings who somehow all spontaneously showed up wearing identical blue-and-white T-shirts saying “clean it up,” Calley promised to make Michigan government “much more effective and efficient.”

Well, we all want that. And politically, there is a certain shrewdness to this. The legislature is hugely unpopular. But Calley’s proposal would make things worse.

Since they could only meet for a few weeks every year, and wouldn’t be paid enough to live on, all our lawmakers would have to be retired or have full-time jobs. Not many jobs allow you to take off for a few weeks every so often.

Nor is anyone going to seriously cripple their career for a part-time political job that can only last six to eight years. So what we would get is incompetents and lobbyists. This would also amount to a serious transfer of power away from the people’s directly elected representatives to the governor and, especially, the special interests.

If Calley had come out in favor of eliminating term limits as part of this, his proposal for a part-time legislature might have some merit. But he made it clear he isn’t interested in that. By the way, if this does somehow become law, Calley could be in big trouble if he doesn’t become governor.

He’ll not only be out of a job, but his wife Julie now holds his old seat in the Michigan House. And her husband is backing a proposal that would drastically cut her pay.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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