Senate panel OKs pay, benefit limits for union leaders

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican senators want to ban agreements under which local schools or governments pay the salaries of public employee union officers engaged in collective bargaining issues during work hours.

A committee voted 4-1 along party lines Tuesday to send the full Senate bills to prevent taxpayer dollars from going toward salaries or pensions of public employee union officials. So-called leave time, for union business, no longer would count toward retirement benefits either.

"All we're saying is that taxpayers shouldn't be paying for that," said Sen. Marty Knollenberg, the sponsor of the two bills. The Troy Republican said he's also trying to close a "loophole" that allows union leaders to spike their payouts from the state retirement system.

Knollenberg argued the money saved could and should be spent in classrooms.

His bill is among proposals GOP lawmakers are considering that have the effect of curtailing labor union influence. Another bill, blocking local wage agreements, received final legislative action Tuesday.

Sen. David Knezek, the lone Senate Education Committee dissenter on Knollenberg's bills, pointed to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis that said unions fund pension contributions for about 50 employees who are on professional services leave.

Removing those union leaders from the retirement system would add $900,000 to the annual public cost because of rules mandating the remainder of the system pick up the tab for the portion they'd be contributing to its legacy costs, according to the analysis.

The bills "literally are doing two polar-opposite things" and "are going to take money out of the classroom," argued Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights.

Meanwhile, the House approved Senate-passed modifications to legislation that says elected officials in counties, cities and townships no longer are allowed to impose their own minimum wage or worker benefit requirements on local businesses.

Sponsored by Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson, it's on the way to Gov. Rick Snyder, who hasn't said if he'll sign it into law.

Under the so-called Local Government Labor Regulatory Limitation Act, local governments couldn't impose any requirements that exceeded state or federal requirements on businesses.

The legislation carries a statement that the Legislature finds any such requirement is "a matter of state concern and is outside the express or implied authority of local governmental bodies."

Opponents said Poleski's legislation would expand state government and strip away the right of local leaders and citizens to approve policies that best suit their communities.

It would wipe out so-called living wage rules, adopted by some local governments, that exceed state or federal wage mandates. Michigan's hourly minimum wage is $8.15, higher than the $7.25 federal minimum, and is to rise to $9.25 in 2018.

Progressive groups say 38 Michigan communities also have nondiscrimination regulations that include protections for gays, which could be affected by the legislation.

House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills charged that by passing the restrictions, Republicans "are telling Michigan workers that they don't deserve good wages and paid sick leave, while eroding local municipalities' ability to take steps toward improving their economies."

Knollenberg's paid leave time prohibition, critics say, would discourage public workers from running for union leadership positions, especially if they unfairly were penalized by losing part of their pension benefits.

The lawmaker wants to end agreements in which, for instance, teachers continue collecting public-funded salaries while away from the classroom serving as local union leaders or as officers of the Michigan Education Association or American Federation of Teachers.

In some school districts, union leaders are allowed to work full time on labor matters while receiving their regular teacher salaries and district-paid benefits.

Knollenberg's bill would require unions to fund that leave time, as well as payments to the state pension system that go toward a local union leaders' retirement benefit. The committee amended the legislation to also block leave time from being used to enhance a union official's retirement pay.

The free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy has criticized the arrangement under which Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook, with a union-paid salary topping $200,000, eventually could collect a state pension exceeding $105,000.

What the MEA pays into the state retirement system on Cook's behalf for compensation far above the average $55,000 teacher salary, along with his more than 20 years on leave time as a union official, have spiked the union leader's potential pension, the organization says.

Todd Tennis, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers, said Knollenberg's original bill — requiring unions to fund their officers' pension benefits during leave time — was fair. But the amended version, he said "goes a little too far."

"Why is there a need to have an impact on peoples' pensions just because they're on leave time?" he queried. That added provision, he said, would be a "huge detriment" to teachers' willingness to run for union leadership roles.

Tennis also questioned the need to prevent local governments and school districts from funding teachers' leave time for union work as part of collective bargaining contracts. In all cases, elected leaders saw benefits in such arrangements and agreed to them, he said.

Northville math teacher Douglas Coates said his school district of nearly 1,000 teachers has had that kind of an agreement for more than 25 years. Eliminating it, he suggested, would end the use of leave time and force elected union leaders to discuss employee issues with school administrators after-hours — or to ask for substitute teachers whenever they had to handle a labor-related matter.

"This would happen several times in a week," Coates said. The legislation "is short-sighted and restricts how school districts can choose to operate," he added. "Trust the people in the school district to know how to manage their operations."

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