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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

A part-time legislature would create more full-time problems

Tired of those state legislators, aye? Having anxiety every time they're back in session? I hear you. Believe me, I hear you. Hardly a thing has come out of Lansing recently that hasn't made me want to curl into a fetal position. You know what would teach 'em? If we cut their pay. In half. While we're at it, let's keep them out of action for as much of the year as possible. That'll make things better, right? And while we're at it with our pitchforks, let's burn something to the ground. That always helps.

If we were a state governed by mob rule, sending our disappointing state legislators back home with our fiery torches might feel right. The petition now being circulated by the Committee to Restore Michigan's Part-Time Legislature to create a ballot measure that would change the state constitution might just scratch that itch. But we're not, and we shouldn't hope to be, a state that governs by wild emotion and mob mentality. If we want government to work better, we should try using our brains, not our pitchforks.

As a journalist covering business and innovation, I spend a lot of time talking to successful entrepreneurs and executives about their successes. Not once, when discussing employee management, has an executive said that cutting employee pay and hours in half produced a better result. From a business perspective, it's an insane proposition.

Why should it be so different in Lansing? We are the bosses of Michigan's legislators. If we want them to perform better we need to raise the bar, not lower it.

Disincentive to serve

Running for state legislature in Michigan is already a questionable career decision for any capable, well-educated person. It's a rigorous job, and thanks to term limits, the longest "career" anyone could hope to sustain in the biz is six years. It's simply smarter to spend those six years working toward tenure elsewhere. A lot of intelligent people agree, so they don't run.

Add to that pay so low that it would require a second job, and who would ever bother? What kind of regular job allows for employees to miss a few months of work each year to leave town and work another gig? Anyone who needs to earn an honest living simply could not afford to do it.

So who would take these jobs? The answer is the independently wealthy and those who can't hold down a better job. Or those to whom power is more important than feeding their families. These would be our legislators.

Incentive to go dark

Unchecked power by lobbyists has already placed Michigan among the most corrupt states in the U.S. How much more powerful will those free lunches be if legislators literally need help paying for their meals? How much more beholden to dark money will our lawmakers be when when they're in genuine need of income?

Whether they're members of congress or Gap salespeople, employees are accountable to whomever signs their checks. If we want them to be accountable to us, we'd better be paying them more than rich donors with policy agendas.

Professionalism goes kaput

The National Council of Legislators' Karl Kurtz doesn't like to distinguish state legislatures as being full-time or part-time. He calls them "professionalized" and "citizen" bodies. Perhaps nothing says more about the difference between the governing models than this.

Governing a state is an important job. If you feel you've been negatively impacted by any of the legislation coming out of Lansing recently (I do!), you know how crucial it is that lawmakers do their jobs well. We don't let undergraduates do surgery, we don't allow interns to manage IPOs, and we shouldn't put a system in place that guarantees amateurs and run our state.

A part-time legislature will not save any significant amount of money. There are, in fact, no measurable benefits to going part-time, particularly for large, complex states like ours. It will only serve to discourage smart professionals from even attempting to run for office, and encourage lots of dark money to further control those who do. It's time to put down our pitchforks and run our state like the nine million citizen CEOs we are. Let's raise the bar, not lower it, and hire some real professionals to start doing right by Michigan.

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