Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and Gov. Jennifer Granholm both recently stated that a part-time Legislature should be investigated as long as the proposal comes affixed to a provision to abolish Michigan’s term limits on state lawmakers. This may rehash the debate regarding whether term limits are helpful or harmful — currently at two four-year terms for the Senate and three two-year terms for the House — and thus whether they should be preserved, eliminated or modified. But this is and should remain a separate issue.
Michigan substantially overpays its lawmakers relative to virtually every other state. However small an amount of money it would represent relative to the size of their spending problem, putting lawmakers on part-time pay would be an important and symbolic first step toward reducing the size, scope and cost of state government.
Michigan lawmakers receive a $79,650 annual salary, plus an additional $12,000 expense account. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, Michigan has the second-highest paid legislators in America. Well over half the states pay lawmakers less than half of what Michigan does. Some much less than that: New Hampshire pays $200 for a two-year term, Alabama $10 per session day, and New Mexico… nothing (just expenses).
Michigan is one of a dozen or so states with a full-time Legislature. There is no evidence that it needs to be full time or that we are better governed than the part-time states. Texas, the second largest state in both people and geography, has part-time lawmakers and pays them just $7,200 annually.
"Full time" is also a relative term. In 2006, the Legislature met fewer than 100 days. Neither the House nor the Senate scheduled a single session day during the month of October — coincidentally the month before Election Day. Each met just six days in August. For July, the Senate met five days and the House met two.
It cost taxpayers $113.9 million for their Legislature in fiscal year 2006. This divides out to $167,000 per law passed and approximately $54,000 per bill introduced. We could do without much of this legislative activity. For example, last year a dozen bills designed to name or rename roadways after historical people, groups and politicians were pending in legislative committees. Seven received enough attention to become laws.
Two that became laws, one to rename a highway after President Ronald Reagan and another to commemorate the UAW Sit-Down Strike, got bogged down in a minor partisan dispute between pro-UAW and pro-Reagan lawmakers. Several amendments and hearings later, the bills were tie-barred to each other — meaning one could not become law without the other — and the governor signed them both.
Highway M-10 in metro Detroit is well-known as either "the Lodge" or "Northwestern," depending on where you’re located. A 2005 law also named it in memory of Rosa Parks. However, the new law left unclear that the terminus of the "Rosa Parks" section of M-10 was the intersection with U.S.-24 (Telegraph Rd.), rather than M-24, which does not intersect M-10 at all. Another bill to clear up the confusion was drafted and passed into law in 2006. Perhaps the muddle was in part due to three other bills on the docket at the time that called for a rename of M-10: one each for Reagan, former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Senate unanimously passed a proposal to rename a prison after a former lawmaker.
The committees that got those bills renaming roads also had more than 20 bills pending for 2006 which dealt with specialty license plates, such as those that picture university logos.
There were bills pending in both chambers to designate official state birds, fruits and a Poet Laureate.
Even when nothing happens to them, these bills all require the time of legislative staff and attorneys to draft them. What has been listed here are only some of the more egregious examples of needless lawmaking and activity by one of the few full-time legislatures in America. A lot of state government needs to be downsized and cutting back to part-time lawmakers isn’t a bad place to begin.
Kenneth M. Braun is a former employee of the Michigan House of Representatives and now a policy analyst specializing in fiscal and budgetary issues for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.