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Wednesday, April 8,2009

Legislature’s tiny pay cut still a screw up

by Kyle Melinn

Believe it or not, the Legislature actually cut its pay last week.


Starting in 2011, more than 10 years after letting slide the now legendary 38 percent pay hike, members of the state’s full-time legislative branch will be paid $71,685 a year, a 10 percent cut from $79,650.

Following Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s advice, the Legislature also took a whack out of all of the big guns’ pay — governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and justices of the Supreme Court. Everyone’s down 10 percent.


And the Legislature still screwed it up. The Michigan House voted 103-6 to make the pay cuts official March 31 in front of a depleted Capitol press corps, which treated it like the resolution urging Turkey to reverse its discriminatory Ecumencial Patriarch policy. Stretch. Back crack. Yawn.


No floor speeches. Little publicity. Amazing.


If Joe and Jane Public know absolutely nothing else about the Legislature, if they blank on the governor’s name, if they think the Capitol is in Washington, they know that somebody gave itself a ridiculous raise a few years ago, and “it just ain’t right.”

The 38 percent pay raise is commonman lore. It’s replaced “Where did the- Lottery money go?” as the default outrage expressed by frustrated Michiganders.

Now, finally, the lawmakers did something about it — and the sun’s daily passage across the sky received more attention.


They had a chance to humbly defuse a hot-button issue in a state where one in eight don’t have a job and many, many more are working for less. Instead, the 38 percent pay raise lives on.


Once upon a time, legislators made $56,981 a year. In a couple years they’ll make $71,685. That’s still a 2 percent raise every year since 2000.


Instead of being the country’s secondhighest paid lawmakers, they’ll be the fourth.

The old-time senators still got to factor the $79,650-a-year rates into their final pension calculation, which is what the whole pay raise was all about in the first place.

Forget that if the pay cut went into effect tomorrow, 72 legislative staffers would earn more than the average lawmaker. Forget that a 10 percent cut of all of the governor’s executive appointees would save money (although neither saves a heck of a lot). Forget that 2,356 state employees make more than a legislator today.

A 10 percent cut is far too little, far too late.


Since Jan. 31, 2001, lawmakers have bumbled around with a convoluted constitutional amendment that slightly changed the pay-setting process.

This whole State Officers Compensation Commission thing should have been completely scrapped. Lawmakers should have asked voters to repeal the hike, set future increases for themselves, the executives and the justices to those of state employees or the rate of inflation (whichever is less) and moved on.


But, no. They wanted the pay. They just didn’t want the public headache. In August 2002, lawmakers put on the ballot this change: Instead of the Legislature speaking up when it doesn’t want the commission’s suggested pay hikes, the Legislature needs to specifically OK the recommendations. WOW!


Once we approved this minimal change, it took lawmakers and the administration six years to figure out how it worked. Three pay cut cries from Gov. Jennifer Granholm later, here we are. Any lawmaker elected next year will still get paid more than your average mechanical engineer, financial controller or construction manager.

Meanwhile, the book is far from closed on the long-term damage the 38 percent pay hike caused the Legislature. The unicameral movement isn’t dead. The drumbeat for a part-time body hasn’t been louder. The movement to repeal term limits was set back at least a decade, if not two or three.

The Michigan Democratic Party proved last year that you could give half the state to the Ukraine, and as long as the proposal is tied to legislative pay cuts, people will sign on the dotted line.


The attempted reforms the Legislature will not stop. Very few will be constructive. Nearly all will substantially harm our state government. And eventually one will stick.


But at least the Legislature will get paid less … even if it means we pay for it, too.


(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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