The Oct. 23, 2007, edition of the MIRS Capitol Capsule (www.mirsnews.com – subscription required) reported that state representatives John Stahl, R – North Branch, and Mike Nofs, R – Battle Creek, were stripped of their climate-controlled underground parking spots beneath their legislative office building and relocated to outdoor surface parking spots behind the capitol building across the street.
With regard to Rep. Stahl, the article speculated that the change of assignment was done because the lawmaker did not support "some elements" of the budget agreement that passed with great acrimony just over three weeks earlier, and that Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, D – Redford Twp., was removing the parking spot as an act of retribution.
A spokesman for the Speaker’s office was asked about the matter by MIRS and declined to comment.
Public school teachers in the Jackson County area take an average of eight days off for illnesses or personal leave, according to a Jan. 20, 2008, feature story in the Jackson Citizen-Patriot (www.citpat.com). The paper notes this is nearly twice the rate for other professions nationally and 4.3 percent of their required work days. Labor contracts in most of the districts examined allow for twelve such absences per teacher annually. The analysis did not examine additional days off taken for long-term paid illnesses, maternity leave, or those for business and union-related purposes.
The Jackson County-area absentee rate is slightly lower than national average of nine-to-ten sick days annually for teachers, according to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research report cited in the newspaper story. At just under ten days per teacher each year, the Jackson Public Schools had the highest rate of any district in the survey. The district superintendent is quoted as saying that some of his younger teachers have come to view these days as alternative vacation days and speculates that they might be less likely to use them if they had to ask for permission from a superior rather than use automated telephone and internet-based systems to announce that they are not coming to work.
A teachers’ union official interviewed for the article cited the prevalence of greater illness among so many young children, which then places teachers at greater risk of infection, as a likely culprit for the additional sick days. One of those teachers of younger kids, an instructor for second graders in the Jackson Public Schools, is quoted as saying, "We don’t get paid for (not taking) them, I might as well use a few of them." The paper states that the Jackson Public Schools racked up 4,448 sick and personal leave days during the 2006-07 school year, at a cost of $419,337 to pay the substitutes.
Big Game Politics
State Rep. Lorence Wenke, R – Richland, fancies himself a "Republican problem solver, not an ideologue," according to MIRS. To this end, the lawmaker has a grey model of a rhino perched atop his desk on the floor of the state House of Representatives. The article states that Wenke is sometimes tagged as a RINO – Republican In Name Only – and the model could symbolize the perception that the lawmaker sometimes doesn’t fit in with either the Democratic "donkeys" or the Republican "elephants."
Wenke says the prop represents hypocritical fiscal conservatism on the elephants’ side of the aisle. Noting a bill proposal of his that would pare back legislator health benefits and over time could potentially save more than a billion dollars, the lawmaker is disappointed that his bill has only seven or eight signatures from his friends in the Republican caucus who he says "talk about really saving taxpayer money."
The rhino was a present from Rep. Chris Ward, R – Brighton, who in turn received it from his staff after he too was accused of being a RINO following a vote in favor of an income tax increase last fall.
"Michigan faces a substantial bill coming due for health care benefits for retired state employees, and even greater costs are likely to emerge for retired teachers," according to a 50-state analysis of states’ retiree benefit obligations produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The report, titled "Promises with a Price," notes that Michigan’s set-aside for non-pension benefits such as retiree health care was more than 99 percent unfunded as of 2006. With a bill coming due of more than $8 billion, the state had socked away just $60 million.
The Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2007 Annual Survey of Employer Health Benefits reveals that providing a health insurance benefit to employees who have retired is rare in the private sector. Of large firms that offer health insurance to their current employees – those with 200 or more employees – just 33 percent also extend health insurance to their former workers. The figure is just 5 percent for smaller firms with fewer than 200 employees.
The Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System includes a post-retirement health care benefit. The MPSERS benefits website refers to it as "one of the best public pensions around."