Michigan speaker backs push for part-time legislature

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — House Speaker Tom Leonard said Thursday he supports calls to make the Michigan Legislature part-time and reduce legislator pay.

A resolution introduced earlier this year would limit the Legislature to meeting 90 days a year, and a pending petition drive seeking to amend the state constitution would base lawmaker pay on teacher salaries.

“I have not read this particular proposal, but in concept I support a part-time legislature,” Leonard, R-DeWitt, told reporters on the House floor.

“I know there’s several other states that have done it. They’ve made it work. I think it’s something we need to start the discussion on here in Michigan.”

Michigan is one of nine states with some form of full-time legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-six other states have “hybrid” legislatures where members work the equivalent of roughly two-thirds of a full-time job.

The Board of State Canvassers met earlier Thursday and was set to consider a part-time legislature petition submitted Clean MI Committee, but the group pulled the language at the last minute to fix a technical error. It plans to resubmit.

Under an initial draft proposal, the Michigan Legislature could meet no more than 90 times in any year, unless the governor called an emergency session for a special purpose. The regular session days would be served in a consecutive block.

Legislator pay could be halved from the $71,685 base salary members currently earn.

The State Officers Compensation Commission would determine total compensation for legislators, including benefits, based on the average teacher compensation, pro-rated to reflect fewer session days than school days.

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. They would make more if the governor called a special session.

Part-time legislature proponent Norm Kammeraad said he does not support the new petition, calling it an attempt at “part-time legislature light” and suggesting it is an effort to pacify grassroots activists who want to pursue “real change.”

Kammeraad is part of a group that has proposed limiting the Legislature to 30 meetings a year. His committee circulated petitions in 2014 but did not collect enough signatures to make the ballot. It is working to craft another petition for 2018, he said.

“The only way you’re going to change the bureaucracy and institution is to give it a full enema,” he said. “Take it and make it a part-time Legislature, like a town board.”

It’s not clear who is behind the new 90-day petition. The committee treasurer and designed record keeper did not return calls from The Detroit News, and attorney John Pirich said only that details would be announced at a later date.

The Michigan Legislature met less than 90 times in 2016, according to election-year journal records showing 82 session days in the House and 81 days in the session.

Legislators typically meet more often in years where there are not statewide elections. In 2015, for instance, the Senate had 112 session days and the House had 104.

But full-time legislators say much of their work is done off the floor and in district, including constituent meetings.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said a part-time Legislature would only make sense if the state also scrapped its term-limits law, which prohibits legislators from serving more six years in the House and eight years in the Senate.

Legislators need experience to develop expertise and sound policy, he told reporters, saying a part-time Legislature with term limits would be harmful.”

“It would really limit the power of the people to speak to their legislators,” he said. “If they citizens of Michigan want to vote that way, they have to understand the (governor) — Democrat or Republican — would have much, much more power.”

Leonard did not rule out a conversation about term limits reform but said he supports calls for a part-time legislature regardless.

“I think us young legislators are doing a pretty good job right now,” he said.