By Kathleen Gray
The Detroit Free Press
That was the total number of days Michigan’s full-time Legislature worked in Lansing in 2012. From mid-June through the last week of November, when many members of the House of Representatives were campaigning for re-election, they put in a whopping 10 days of work in the state capital.
They then went on a three-week lame-duck binge, passing 282 bills, including controversial ones dealing with the right-to-work law, taxes, abortion rights and gun control. In 2011, they were in session 100 days, taking the entire months of July and August off, along with two-week breaks in the spring, November and December. This year, the House schedule includes one day of work in each of July and August, a two-week spring break, and two weeks off in both November and December. The Senate schedule for the year is updated only through June, but also includes a two-week spring break.
Nationally, the average full-time employee, who gets three weeks of vacation and the standard six holiday days off, works 239 days each year. A part-time worker, who generally works 20 hours a week, puts in 130 days a year.
“Michigan is one of only 10 states that has some sort of full-time legislative session and we’re really only one of four states that are truly in a full-time session,” said state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph. “If the other 40 states can do it in a part-time fashion, there’s no reason why we can’t.”
Proos has introduced a bill in the Senate that would let voters decide whether the Legislature should become part-time, working 90 days of the year. State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, plans to introduce similar legislation in the House, including cutting the $71,685 annual salary by 75%.
“I think we can get our work done in 90 days,” he said. “Our major task is the budget, and we got that done early the past two years.”
Other lawmakers say it’s unfair to judge their time on the job strictly by the days they spend in Lansing. They host coffee hours with constituents back home, attend local meetings, give speeches and prepare for the upcoming legislative debates back at the Capitol.
The trick to getting a part-time Legislature will be getting their legislative colleagues on their side, and that appears to be a long shot. Even Gov. Rick Snyder said last week he doesn’t support changing to a part-time Legislature.
Of the top 10 states in population, four — California, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York — have true, full-time Legislatures. Another three in the top 10 in population have semi-full-time legislatures that generally don’t meet throughout the year.
And places like Texas, the second-largest state in the nation, and smaller counterparts such as Montana, Nevada and North Dakota, meet every other year. Their pay ranges from $82.64 a day in Montana to $7,200 a year in Texas.
Most of the other Midwestern states surrounding Michigan — Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois — have some form of a full-time Legislature.
Indiana has operated with a part-time Legislature since the 1800s, and only switched from an every-other-year to an annual legislative session in the 1970s. Legislators are paid $22,616 a year, and they get a $152 per diem payment for each day they’re in session.
“It is a challenge to balance the work load, a career and respond to the flexibility necessary for the job,” said Indiana Senate Majority Floor Leader Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek.
Finding candidates who can juggle a career and the three- to four-month legislative calendar can be difficult, said Hershman, who owns a consulting business with his wife. But there are benefits as well.
“The strict nature of the deadlines lead to compromises and easier resolution of problems,” he said. “And it forces us to prioritize: Things that are very pressing always rise to the top.”
Iowa also operates with a part-time Legislature, working up to 110 days a year and paying the lawmakers $25,000 a year, plus a $132 per day stipend during session.
If an emergency arises in the part-time Legislature states, the governor can call the House and Senate back into session. But that’s a rare occurrence, said Chief Clerk of the Iowa Legislature Carmine Boal. Since 1964, the Legislature has been called back to work 14 times.
“It’s not a given by any means, and is avoided at all costs,” she said. “It costs the taxpayers money.”
And it costs the legislators, too. When they’re called back to Des Moines for emergency session, they’re not paid a per diem and must pick up their own expenses for food and lodging.
Michigan legislators’ status as full-timers has not gone unchallenged. Bills have been introduced on an almost annual basis. And ballot proposals have been tried, but failed.
Henry Woloson, a Clarkston attorney and financial adviser, was part of a group that tried unsuccessfully in 2008 to get enough petition signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
“This is an issue that will never be taken up by the Legislature,” he said. “They have no incentive to do it.”
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It will save money, though that’s not necessarily the main concern, Woloson said. Even if legislative pay was cut in half and the roughly 700 Senate and House staffers pared back, the $116-million 2013 legislative budget represents a fraction of the state’s overall $7.5-billion general-fund budget.
“This is more about good government; making it more efficient, accountable and transparent,” he said. “There is no reason why we can’t have members working part-time in Lansing and then return to their communities to interface with the people.”
But that time in the community — speaking with groups, meeting with constituents and local elected officials and learning about upcoming bills — makes what looks like a part-time job a full-time endeavor, said Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe.
“The governor likes to talk about the state as being a customer service window, and representatives and senators end up being that window for customer service,” he said. “We’re the closest to the constituents of this state, and that’s important to consider, too.”
House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said it would be difficult to find people who would be able to take that time away from their careers for three months or so in the Legislature.
“I don’t think that we want to end up in a situation where the only people who are able to serve are multimillionaires,” he said. “But we’re always open to talk about shrinking government and making it more efficient.”
Snyder said last week that he doesn’t think it’s the right time for a part-time Legislature.
Speaking to the Brighton Chamber of Commerce, he said: “I’m asking them to do enough work where we need them there full-time. For the next two to three years, as we continue on a path of reinvention, we just need to work really hard.”
Lansing political consultant Craig Ruff said he worries that while legislators are back in their district for extended periods of time that the governor, staff and lobbyists can act without much oversight.
“I worry about that shift in power,” he said. “And the other thing is that constituent services have to go on whether a legislator is sitting at a desk in the Capitol or at home.”
Even backers of a part-time Legislature realize their quest is a long shot.
“This is the third time I’ve introduced this, and I’ve never gotten much traction,” McMillin said.
In fact, the bill has never even gotten a hearing in committee.
Proos acknowledged that his bill is far from a slam dunk.
“I know there is a difference of opinion on this and some of my colleagues will have plenty to say about it,” he said. “But this is a reform that makes good common sense. We’re having to find savings and solutions to problems on a daily basis.”