One perennial idea for political reform ‒ a move to a part-time legislature ‒ has re-emerged, this time being pushed by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is testing the waters for a candidacy for governor.
Calley has launched a "Clean Government" committee which plans to seek enough signatures to get a part-time legislature Constitutional amendment on the ballot, once he can get petition language that the state board of canvassers will approve.
The idea is to limit lawmakers to three consecutive months of work each year and cut salaries by more than half from their current paychecks of $71,685, less than they used to be, but still the fourth- highest in the nation.
Calley told me the legislature doesn't need to meet all year long to get its work done and that for lawmakers to spend too much time together in Lansing takes the governing process too much out of the hands of ordinary citizens. Advocates also claim this would save "tens of millions" each year, although to get to that target, legislative staff and other expenses would have to be slashed.
This comes after years in which Michigan's legislative culture has been hobbled by some of the most restrictive term limits in the nation. State representatives can serve a maximum of six years, state senators eight – after which they are barred from more for life.
What that does is to doom us to a legacy of legislative inexperience. Critics of Calley's proposal claim that the result would be weakening the legislature's effectiveness and risking an unchecked executive branch of power. Though his proposal is labeled "Clean Government,” it's hard to see how reducing the period lawmakers are in Lansing actually would help clean up anything.
Plus, the obvious big question is what effect moving to a part-time legislature would have on getting well-qualified men and women to run for office.
Who's going to try to get a job that offers around $35,000 salary? World-beaters? Calley thinks making this a three-month part time job will "open up the talent pool" and attract better people.
Maybe so, but I doubt it.
Realistically, there may be people who like the idea of a job that gives you nine months off each year, during which time they can take another job, But what employer wants to hire somebody, only to see them leave for Lansing for three months every year?
And who wants to take a part-time legislative job that exposes them to the risk of conflict with their regular boss in the real world? Moreover, what do you think most people would put first, when push came to shove: A nine-month job outside of Lansing versus a three-month temporary gig representing “the public interest?”
For those who are skeptical about the proper and competent workings of the Michigan executive branch, consider the likely effect of the bureaucracy running the show without legislative oversight for nine months every year.
In recent years, we've been outraged by the Flint drinking water debacle and the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency mess that allowed computers to run amok wrongfully cutting payments and doling out unearned punishment to thousands of deserving citizens. Both failings were symptoms of a groupthink executive branch culture lacking vision and obsessed with the bottom line.
Do we really want to give the governor's office more power?
The American political tradition is to be very suspicious of ANY group, within or outside government, running things without oversight or separation of power balance.
We may grumble at our inexperienced lawmakers, but most of them genuinely want to do the right thing and even under term limits have accumulated some experience.
If we flush that away, what remains to take up the slack?
It's hard not to regard Calley's proposal for a part-time legislature as a political gimmick designed to appeal to the Republican base that will pick a GOP nominee for governor next year.
Calley is at present a decided underdog to state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is already making prosecutorial hay out of the Flint mess. Calley needs a talking point that positions him with the base of the Republican Party, a base that doesn't like Lansing and doesn't much care for the compromises of capable state government under a system of separated powers.
To be fair, when I talked with Calley about his proposal, he told me he's been working on this topic since 2009, when he developed a similar constitutional amendment. "I'm a true believer, not a Johnny-come-lately," he told me, and he's entitled to be taken at his word.
On balance, though, if we're going to fool with the Constitution about the workings of the legislature, it would be far better to lengthen our restrictive term limits and get more experienced lawmakers to manage things in Lansing.
Doing what the lieutenant governor wishes would risk vastly increased executive power with a part-time legislature.