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Michigan Republicans eyeing teacher retirement benefit reform

There’s a face off between Governor Rick Snyder and Republican leaders over an issue that’s not even at the top of anyone’s to-do list.

The state Legislature is working away on the state budget and Republicans have been cutting Snyder’s budget proposal. They’re squirreling away money but they haven’t decided what to do with it yet.

The top contender right now is teacher retirement benefits.

“This is now my top priority and it is now the Senate majority leader’s top priority,” Speaker of the House Tom Leonard told reporters in Lansing. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said, “we think there’s an opportunity to solve one of the nagging problems of growing debt for the state and this may be one of those opportunities.”

So, the two Republican leaders agree. But the question is: why this issue of teacher retirement benefits?

And, why now?

Voters certainly aren’t clamoring for it. Sure, there’s a segment of the GOP base that doesn’t mind taking a swipe at teachers’ unions. But this issue of overhauling teacher retirement really just appeals to a business-minded subset of the Republican donor class. They figure their businesses have converted to 401ks, so the state should do the same. But even that group isn’t shouting, ‘do it now.’

And agreement that this is a problem that needs to be fixed is not universal. Our CPA governor certainly isn’t on board. Snyder already engineered an overhaul of the teacher retirement system and a plan to pay down the debt over 30 years. This plan is Snyder’s CPA masterpiece on a spreadsheet.

And we don’t know yet how many Republican lawmakers are on board.

Some of them are certainly eyeballing the money that’s squirrelled away - more than a quarter of a billion dollars - and thinking they’d like a better story to go home and tell their constituents than tinkering with teacher pensions. Like, possibly, money for roads and infrastructure. Or some form of a tax cut or rebate.

So, the question again: why are Speaker Leonard and Majority Leader Meekhof pushing this now?

Well, first: it’s convenient. It may not be anyone’s top priority but, it’s on an eventual to-do list for many Republicans.

And second, Leonard needs a win to show his leadership skills after his idea to roll back the state income tax crashed and burned in the first big House vote of the session earlier this year.

So, it’s basically timing.

But this isn’t across the finish line. This is still just at the idea stage.

Meekhof and Leonard not only have to sell the governor on their idea. They also have to convince their Republican caucuses this is the best use of their political pot of gold.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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