What Problem is This Supposed to Solve?

These days, when there is agreement of any sort between Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) and Governor Jennifer Granholm (D), that in and of itself is news. Amid the myriad problems facing the state of Michigan (unemployment, foreclosures, rising gas prices, decreased government revenues, factory closings, layoffs, environmental degradation, and the continuing budget mess), a proposal has been floated that appears to have the tacit endorsement of Senator Bishop and Governor Granholm. The proposal is for a part-time legislature.

But the proposal is tied to changing the term-limits so that legislators can serve longer.

Just what problem or problems is this proposal supposed to solve? I am not the only asking this. Senator Mark Schauer asked: “What problem are we trying to fix?”

This editorial from the Jackson Citizen-Patriot enumerates many of the supposed benefits.

  • Start with the obvious: It’ll save money. There are 148 senators and representatives who each make nearly $80,000. Cut their pay by a conservative one-third…As we all tighten our belts, there’s a symbolic value in seeing those who represent us do the same.

Why stop there? Why not make all state employees, including the governor, part-time…Think of the savings!…Right…If it’s about saving money, just have them cut their pay and benefits. Why the whole rigamorole over reducing the number of days in session?

But if we only cut their pay by a third, are they really part-time? It’s not such an easy thing to define. Just look here. If you read on down the NCSL Backgrounder, you’ll see that Michigan, a high population state has a full-time legislature like other high population states with diverse economies and different population densities.

  • It addresses the term-limits problem.

No, it doesn’t. A part-time legislature in and of itself does not address this problem. It only would because the deal for this to go through is that the limit to the number of terms would be increased. Addressing the term-limit problem would be to repeal term-limits.

  • It would force legislators to focus on the important issues. Just look at the ongoing budget mess to see the downside of a House and Senate with too much time on their hands.

How does less time in session fix this? The budget would be a mess regardless. The problems of the budget (previous tax cuts, less revenue for services and programs people like) are independent of the working status of the legislature. Though it is acknowledged by many pundits it would have been less of a mess without the term limits, because experienced people would be around to handle it.

BTW, does anyone need to be reminded that it was the Republican-controlled House and Senate that voted to repeal the Single Business Tax (SBT) a year ago? Yet, only within the last month or so have we seen the Republicans finally propose a replacement for it. You’d think they would have had that thought out before they voted to get rid of the SBT. This is also contributing to the stalled budget process. How would a part-time legislature have addressed this particular problem differently? It wouldn’t.

Also, if they’re part-time, what will they do the rest of the time? Work a job? Really? They will? What job is that where you can take an annual leave of absence of months on end to do something else? And don’t forget election time. Those part-time legislators will need time off for that, too. I’m sure there are plenty of employers who will be willing to let one of their workers take an extra extended leave every few years to campaign for their other job. Sounds reasonable to me…Hardly.

The only people who will be able to work as a part-time legislator are the self-employed, the business owner, or the independently wealthy. Not exactly a representative pool of qualified people from the population. It would be anything but the citizen-legislature. The whole point of a full-time legislature is that the public gives them full means of support to serve the people, without conflict of interest.

There is not a problem facing this state that can be solved by shifting to a part-time legislature. Though there are plenty of problems that have been exacerbated by term limits.

This part-time legislature proposal smacks of the kind of knee-jerk thinking behind term limits. The thinking that went, “I hate your guy and think he has too much power and he’s corrupt anyway. Term limits will fix this because it will get him out of office.” In other words, it’s about not liking how other people continue to vote despite what you think. But only the part-time legislature concept appeals to the We Hate Government crowd, by supposedly making smaller and less intrusive the government made up of all those hated politicians.

A part-time legislature and term limits just make attempts to fix democracy by hampering it. a blanket repeal of the term-limits is the only reform that appeals to me.

Look, regular readers of this blog know I am no fan of Senator Mike Bishop. Making him work part-time won’t make him go away or fix the current budget stalemate. But if the people of his district want to continue to vote for him and keep him in the Senate for as many terms as they want, I think they should be able to do just that. Meanwhile, I’d keep voting to send Mark Meadows (D) to the House and Gretchen Whitmer (D) to the Senate because I’m more than pleased with their work on my behalf. That’s democracy. It’s messy. It’s imperfect. As Winston Churchill said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.


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