Part-time legislature efforts ramp up in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is spearheading a petition drive and potential 2018 ballot proposal to make the Michigan legislature part-time and cut lawmaker pay, the Portland Republican announced Tuesday.

The “Clean Michigan Government” proposal to amend the state Constitution would generally limit the legislature to meeting for 90 session days, served consecutively rather than at various times throughout the year.

It would also roughly halve legislator salaries and tie their compensation to teacher pay, Calley said during a closely watched event on Mackinac Island, where many observers had expected him to launch a gubernatorial campaign.

“There’ll still be plenty of time to do the state’s business,” Calley said, noting a majority of states have part-time legislatures and lower legislator salaries. “There will just be less time for procrastination. Less time for politics and posturing. Less time for proposing thousands of new laws each year. Because sometimes, less is more.”

The announcement came as likely GOP gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Bill Schuette also tried to project himself as a leader of the part-time legislature movement. On his Facebook page Tuesday, Schuette posted an online sign-up sheet with no obvious connection to a ballot proposal committee and urged people to “Hit The ‘REFRESH’ Button on Lansing and make Michigan a Part-Time Legislature state.”

Calley’s push also occurred more than a month after he began appearing in a series of online advertisements highlighting his family, professional relationships and political accomplishments working under GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election next year.

The web videos, which functioned as mini profiles of the lieutenant governor, appeared to suggest an imminent gubernatorial campaign and promised a reveal on May 30 – a date Calley instead used to announce the part-time legislature initiative.

Calley is expected to make a second announcement on the island Thursday, a date also teased on a new website inviting visitors to “Please come back on June 1st.” It’s not yet clear what he will reveal at that time.

Surrounded by young supporters wearing “Clean Mi Govt” T-shirts, Calley declined to tell reporters whether he intends to run for governor, saying “we’ve still got more work to do in this term.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called the petition drive a “gimmick” and an attempt by Calley to distance himself from Lansing insiders as he gears up for a likely gubernatorial run.

“I find the whole idea of Brian Calley coming to clean up the establishment pretty comical,” Dillon said outside the event. “He is the establishment. His party has been in total control for the last seven years.”

An attorney for the Clean Michigan committee submitted part-time legislature petition language to the Board of State Canvassers earlier this month but withdrew the submission on May 18, indicating a technical fix was necessary prior to circulation.

A slightly revised proposal was recently submitted to the state but has not yet been approved for circulation, an optional step that didn’t stop volunteers from soliciting signatures on Mackinac Island, where business and political leaders are gathering this week for an annual policy conference hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Organizers would need to collect more than 315,000 valid signatures to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot in 2018.

Calley promised “the most high-tech, effective grassroots movement to amend Michigan’s constitution, ever,” suggesting organizers could knock on as many as a million doors.

Michigan is one of 10 states with some form of a full-time legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers here earn an annual base salary of $71,685, the fourth-highest rate in the country.

The proposal would limit the legislature to 90 session days per year, unless the governor called a special or emergency session. Legislator pay would be based on the average compensation for Michigan teachers, pro-rated to reflect fewer days worked.

Michigan teachers earned an average of roughly $62,000 during the 2015-16 school year, according to the Center for Educational Performance and Information, and the state now requires 180 school days a year. That means legislators could earn somewhere around $31,000 a year if they worked 90 session days, or more if the governor called a special session.

If he does eventually run for governor, serving as the public face of a petition drive for a part-time legislature could help Calley appeal to Republican primary voters wary of big government but frustrated by the actions of the Snyder administration, including fuel tax increases and expansion of Medicaid health coverage eligibility under former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

But Calley already faces opposition from at least one conservative group, the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals, which was formed to fight a 2015 road funding proposal that Calley supported but voters rejected. The group favors a part-time legislature but does not want Calley leading the charge.

“Brian Calley has a history of supporting special interests and higher taxes,” coalition president Randall Thompson said in a statement. “When it comes to statewide proposals, he says one thing and does another.”

The push for a part-time legislature has been gaining steam in conservative circles. Calley has advocated for it since at least 2009.

Schuette said in a 2010 debate that he supported a part-time legislature and reiterated that position last week in a guest commentary for The Detroit News. GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard, a potential candidate for attorney general, has backed the concept as well.

Calley’s month-long online ad campaign teasing the May 30 announcement raised eyebrows and prompted a campaign finance complaint from Livingston County Democratic Party Chairwoman Judy Daubenmier, who argued “the wink and nod intent and message” behind the ads signaled that the lieutenant governor was set to announce a gubernatorial campaign.

The Bureau of Elections received the complaint and has asked Calley to respond, said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams, who added any response would not be released until a staff review is completed.

The complaint “had no merit before and is totally irrelevant now,” said John Yob, a GOP political strategist working with Calley on the part-time legislature campaign.

Critics of the part-time legislature idea argue the constitutional amendment would limit the amount of time legislators have to work with constituents, give more power to the executive branch and discourage candidates who could not afford to take an extended leave from work for a 90-day session.

The proposal also could empower special interests and lobbyists, said Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott, whose liberal group held signs outside the event comparing Calley with Snyder.

“Right now with term limits, we already have a revolving door of legislators who don’t really know the process necessary and aren’t able to compromise and get things done for the state of Michigan,” Scott said. “A part-time legislature is only going to make that worse.”

But Calley said the initiative would save the state millions of dollars and open legislator jobs to people “from all walks of life” because they would not be required to “abandon their careers in the real world in order to participate.”

Calley told reporters he has asked several business owners if they’d allow their employees to take three-month leaves each year to serve in the state legislature. So far, none has said no, he said.

“My initiative will make the system more efficient. Get in, get the important work done and go back home,” Calley said. “My initiative will result in better laws because it ensures that legislators live most of their lives under the laws they make.”