Michigan’s legislators had enough time last year to pass a law to make sure that one guy in the U.P. could make money by letting people pet bear cubs. That was just one of 367 laws passed since January 1st, 2013. Laws are being passed so fast that citizens cannot keep up, and it’s doubtful that even the legislators have had time to understand the implications of each bill. The overreaching nature of the current legislature is just one of the reasons a new ballot initative is being undertaken in order to restore Michigan’s part-time legislature.
Michigan is one of just four states with a full-time legislature, though another six states are near full-time according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Michigan legislators are the 4th highest paid in the nation taking home $71,685 a year. Because the legislators are full time, they require a larger staff. The average staff member per legislator of a full-time legislature is almost nine people per elected official as opposed to just three per elected officials for a part-time legislature. According to Mike Kuras, the Secretary of the Committee to Restore Michigan’s Part-Time Legislature (CRMPTL), Michigan now employs almost 1,000 staff members to help our148 legislators accomplish their work. The CRMPTL is in the midst of gathering signatures that would not only return Michigan to a part-time legislature like it was before 1967, the ballot initiative would also limit the number of staff members to 250. That number might be a little bit low since using the three staffers for each part-time legislator rule means about 444 staffers would be typical. Legislators would likely lose some of their personal staff, but it would go beyond that. The amendment calls for the elimination of the Michigan Legislative Council (MLC). The MLC has a number of sub-entities including the Legislative Service Bureau whose job it is to compile and publish Michigan’s laws. Kuras says that the legislature would be put to the task of recreating a body to perform that task. They would likely have to do it with a lot smaller staff though.
One of the criticisms being bantered around about the initiative is that this move would actually increase the power of lobbyist in Lansing. Even lobbyists are saying that, so it makes you wonder about the validity of the argument. Kuras suggests that legislators will be spending a lot more time in their home district, unless they can afford and justify working full time in Lansing for half pay, so they might be far more likely to rely on local experts and the opinions of their constituents rather than those of paid lobbyists. Also, when legislators are at home they wouldn’t be a stones throw from the lobbyist’s offices, and they wouldn’t be available to attend the fundraisers that lobbyists hold two or three days a week in Lansing.
Another valid question is who can afford to be a legislator at a pay that is capped at $35,000 a year with a mild cost of living increase each year. First, the average Michigander makes less than $28,000 a year. So if you are looking for average folks, the pay is not a barrier. Additionally, legislators would be allowed, if not encouraged, to supplement their income with non-political work. Since they would only be in session 60 days each year, unless called up for a special session by the Governor, they would have time to hold down another job and supplement that income.
Michigan still lacks the kind of transparency that would help prevent legislators from receiving kickbacks to make up for their lost income. Unfortunately, this amendment wouldn’t change that. According to Kuras, the transparency piece of this legislation would make public knowledge all the fringe benefits that legislators receive from the state, for instance when legislators take a trip to another country to attend an economic summit. Apparently, the authors of this amendment hope that would shame the legislators into blowing less of the tax payers’ money. It’s pretty hard to shame a legislator though.
One of the hurdles the CRMPTL will face, should they get enough votes to put it on the ballot, is getting over the “just say no” mentality. In the last election every ballot proposal was defeated by a no vote. Based on the content of the amendments, it appears that the overriding philosophy was to say no rather than to actually consider the content of the five proposals independently. The more ballot initiatives that get the needed signatures to make it on the ballot, the harder that no barrier will be to overcome.
So is a part-time legislature a good idea or not? I guess we could look at this way. If we had a part-time legislature now, would we move to make it full time? Also, do most voters believe that our best interests are being served when legislators cast their vote in Lansing? If you said no to both of those questions, then why not say yes to a part-time legislature?