Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
I realize that the idea of a true part-time Legislature is not popular with most progressives. And yes, I completely understand that paying lawmakers a full-time salary permits candidates from all economic backgrounds to run for legislative office. But today's barbershop-harmony resolution has convinced me that something needs to be done.
The legislative branch of Michigan's government is broken. First, we need to get rid of term limits: the most undemocratic idea ever to be incorporated into the text of the Michigan Constitution. Second, I believe that it is time to consider a real part-time Legislature.
Many studies have shown that Americans are working longer and longer hours across the board. A 2014 Gallup Poll indicates that American adults work an average of 47 hours per week, and nearly 40 percent of adults in the United States now report that they work at least 50 hours per week. For most American working people, the 40-hour work week is no longer a reality.
At the same time, Michigan’s legislators appear to be working less and less. In times past, the Michigan Legislature met six days a week while it was in session. True, the Legislature was a part-time institution throughout much of Michigan’s history, and many lawmakers had full-time jobs outside Lansing (for instance, legislators only earned $3 per session day in 1873). However, because they were in session for only two or three months of the year, legislators made every effort to maximize their hours working on essential state business while in Lansing. Saturday and late-night legislative meetings were common.
These days, the Michigan Legislature is considered full-time and remains “in session” for most of the year. Members of the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives earn full-time salaries; they are the fourth highest paid state legislators in the country, trailing only their counterparts in California, New York, and Pennsylvania.
But don’t let the label “full-time” fool you. The Michigan Legislature typically meets only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, punctuated by long recesses and vacations. Although Michigan’s lawmakers now claim to be full-time legislative professionals, and no longer hold separate jobs outside Lansing, they actually work far fewer hours than their predecessors during any given session week.
And consider what our lawmakers actually do while they are “working” in Lansing: Today, as alluded to previously, the Michigan Senate adopted Senate Resolution 67, introduced by Senator Dave Hildenbrand (R-Lowell), which recognizes June 8th as Barbershop Harmony Day. Faced with a road-funding crisis of epic proportion, this is the kind of work that our legislators are prioritizing? Shameful and embarrassing are two adjectives that come to mind. Truth be told, I actually like a little old-timey barbershop music from time to time. But is the matter of barbershop harmony really worthy of legislative time, money, and resources? Of course not!
What about that road-funding crisis? Where are the solutions? Michigan's legislators are great at talking about problems and passing the buck. However, even with all that time on their hands, they are increasingly unwilling or unable to make the important decisions for which we sent them to Lansing in the first place.
Compare the Michigan Legislature to the Texas Legislature. Michigan has a population of roughly 9.9 million people. The Michigan Legislature is in session throughout the year and its members earn an annual salary of $71,685 (plus an additional $10,800 per year for incidental expenses). Texas has a population of approximately 26.9 million people—more than 2.5 times that of Michigan. Yet the Texas Legislature is part-time and its sessions are constitutionally limited to 140 consecutive calendar days in any given year. Texas lawmakers earn an annual salary of $7,200, plus a per diem of $150 for each day the legislature sits in Austin. According to an official state website, most Texas lawmakers “work separate, full-time jobs in addition to serving in the Texas Legislature.”
Lest there be any confusion, the job of a Texas legislator is not any easier than that of a Michigan legislator. For example, because the Texas Senate consists of 31 members, each Texas state senator represents and serves 867,742 Texans. By contrast, the Michigan Senate has 38 members, each of whom represents and serves only 260,526 Michiganians. And because Texas legislative districts are geographically much larger, members spend a great deal more time traveling to meet with constituents.
Other large states restrict their legislative sessions even further. Florida, now the third most populous state with 19.8 million people, constitutionally limits its regular legislative sessions to 60 consecutive days per year (20 additional days are permitted for special sessions, if needed). Florida legislators earn $29,697 annually. Virginia constitutionally limits its state legislative sessions to 60 days in even-numbered years and only 30 days in odd-numbered years. Virginia’s lawmakers earn approximately $18,000 per year.
Make no mistake: Today’s Michigan Legislature is “full-time” in name only. Outside Lansing, no reasonable person would consider a Tuesday-through-Thursday job—with long, interspersed vacations—to be full-time. But this fiction endures, effectively permitting Michigan’s lawmakers to get away with performing part-time work in exchange for a full-time salary.
I know that many progressives will scoff at my assertion. But I truly believe that if the Michigan Legislature were constitutionally limited to 90 consecutive session days per year, we would see far less wasteful legislation and far more real problem-solving in Lansing. If lawmakers were required to complete their work in a shortened time frame, they would be forced to cooperate, work much harder during their limited legislative session, and focus on the issues that are really important. While the cost savings from lower legislative salaries would be minimal, the taxpayers would realize other benefits. With only three months to complete their tasks, lawmakers would have less time to pass unnecessary or frivolous bills. And maybe, just maybe, they would act with greater urgency to solve Michigan's most serious problems.