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Why a Democrat Voted Against a State Employee Pay Hike

By Sen. Mickey Switalski editor’s note: Below is the March 3, 2010, floor speech of state Sen. Michael "Mickey" Switalski, D-Roseville, urging the Senate to reject a 3 percent pay hike for Michigan’s unionized state employees. The Michigan Civil Service Commission has negotiated the pay hike and the state constitution requires a 2/3 "super-majority" in both chambers of the Legislature to undo the offer.

Switalski was the lone Democrat to vote against the pay hike. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, urged the entire chamber to reject the raise. Bishop's statement is here. 

All of the GOP caucus voted to reject the pay hike except for Sen. Bruce Patterson, R-Canton, who was present but did not vote. The measure was defeated when it fell short of the 2/3 majority: Needing 26 of 38 votes to reject the pay hike, it received 22. The text of the measure is available here.

Senator Switalski's statement is as follows:

I appreciate the remarks of my colleagues, especially Senators Prusi and Whitmer. I thought they had a lot of truth in what they said. This is a very difficult vote. The state has negotiated a contract with the employees, and under normal circumstances, we should honor that contract. But these are not normal times.

Article 11, Section 5 of the State Constitution specifically allows the state to modify a pay increase for employees by a two-thirds vote. This is an important limit on the immutability of our contract, and the supermajority required to rescind the increase purposely sets the bar high.

The framers of the Constitution did not want demagogues to try to make themselves look good by beating up on state employees. That is why the framers specifically denied the Legislature the ability to cut pay in this same article. But they recognized that in rare cases, the state may need to reduce or reject a pay increase.

The Governor has already used her power to rescind the 3 percent increase scheduled for the nonexclusively represented employees (NEREs). Basic fairness suggests that we treat both the NEREs and unionized employees the same. Represented status should not confer a special benefit nor carry a penalty. To treat the groups the same requires elimination of the 3 percent increase.

I have spoken to the NEREs, and for the most part, they prefer both they and the union get the 3 percent increase. But that is not the option before us today. The NEREs have already lost the 3 percent. Equal treatment would require union employees to have their increase cancelled also.

Cancelling the increase would mean the state would fail to live up to the provisions of the contract we bargained with the employees in good faith. Many employees see that as deeply unfair, and it will cost us in terms of lost trust.

The Legislature must choose between bad options. We can cheapen our word, or spend money we don't have.

At one end of the spectrum, my Republican friends proposed several weeks ago that all public employees take an across-the-board 5 percent pay cut. I do not support that proposal. Besides violating the Constitution, which says the Legislature cannot cut pay, I believe the proposed pay cut would be impossible to administer fairly.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the negotiated 3 percent increase. In these times, with the state $1.6 billion deficit, it is hard to justify giving anyone an increase especially when wages are falling for so many of our constituents who pay the bills.

Most importantly, the $50 million spent to increase wages would amplify our deficit and require additional reductions in the ranks of state employees. If I am given a choice between freezing pay and avoiding layoffs, or granting increases to some while laying off others, I choose to freeze pay and avoid layoffs. Solidarity means looking out for each other, and the last thing we need in Michigan is more unemployed workers.

I believe freezing the pay at current levels, not giving an increase, but not taking a cut, steers a middle course between the extremes and is the best of some admittedly bad options. It is a vote I cast with regret but one I cannot avoid.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.