News Story

Reform Bills Stalled or Just Moving Slowly?

A couple of key pieces of reform legislation have been sitting in a state Senate committee for weeks. It might only be a temporary bottleneck, but the lack of movement is making some supporters of the measures nervous.

The bills are in the Senate Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Grand Rapids. Sen. Jansen told Capitol Confidential there are issues with both bills that have yet to be resolved. He also said the issues are being worked out through the committee process.

One of the key bills is House Bill 4929, which would ban the practice of using public school resources to deduct union dues. It was passed by the House six weeks ago on a 55 to 53 vote.

“We've heard that the bill could be reported out of committee soon,” said Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, who sponsored HB 4929.  “I hope it will. To me, it's an issue of transparency. I think there's a difference between someone actually writing a check and sending it in to a union and the union being able to have the money automatically come out of a paycheck ahead of time.”

Some people maintain that HB 4929 would have almost the same impact on unions as the "right-to-teach" legislation (also called "right-to-work for teachers"). The theory behind that thinking is that in both scenarios, the Michigan Education Association could end up losing about 40 percent of its dues-paying members. But Rep. Haveman said he's not sure if that would be so or not.

“If that were true, it would really be a terrible reflection on the union,” he said. “But no one really knows what would happen. Regardless, I don't think it's the taxpayers' responsibility to collect the dues for a union.”

Sen. Jansen said HB 4929 has been in his committee for roughly the length of time he'd expected. But now it looks like more time will be needed.

“Initially I thought it would take about five or six weeks,” he said. “We're working on a couple of issues with it. In fact, we've just held a hearing on it. One thing we've talked about is possibly combining parts of some other bills into it. We're planning to get the bill sponsor and [Senate Majority Floor Leader] Arlan Meekof to work together on it.”

Sen. Meekhof, R-West Olive, played a central role in drafting the “right-to-teach” legislation. He appears to be one of the Senate Republicans' key lawmakers on the issue of government union reforms.

The other key measure sitting in the same committee is House Bill 4059, which would ban putting union stewards on a public payroll. The legislation was passed by the House April 14 on a 59 to 47 vote.

Over the years, government unions got local school districts and municipalities to agree to pay for the time that union stewards spend working on union issues. This was called “release time.” Eventually it reached a point where, in some cases, school districts were paying union stewards salary and benefit amounts of up to $140,000 a year. This was for work that was being done solely for the unions. HB 4059 would put an end to the practice.

“I've heard that the holdup is because police and fire unions don't want to be covered by the bill,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy. “So what it looks like right now is that the committee has to decide whether or not to do that carve out. There might be other issues, but that's the one I've heard about.”

Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, said he didn't think that "carve out" was the right term to use. He asserted that the union just doesn't believe it should be lumped in with the teachers' unions on this issue.

“Our situation is not the same as it is with some of the teachers' unions,” Docherty said. “In fact, I think there's only one city in the state where we have a full time union [steward].

“What we want is to express how this legislation would have a negative effect on us,” Docherty continued. “'Our position is more about recognizing that there was an original reason for release time. We have employees who are union representatives and need time to address legitimate grievances.”

Docherty added that he was not including Detroit in his examples. He said the situation in Detroit is very different from the rest of the state.

“In Detroit I think city officials are glad they have full-time union representatives,” Docherty said. “There are just so many issues going on in Detroit.”

Sen. Jansen said there are members on his committee who have “minor” issues with the bill's eventual affect on police and fire unions. However, he said the biggest issue that has prevented the bill from moving has been time.

“After this came to the committee, it got put on the back burner because we got busy with my 80/20 (public employee benefits) reform legislation,” he said. “It's been a while since we've talked about it and now we're getting involved with the retirement issue. I'm trying to get House members to work with the Senate on these kinds of issues, but in some cases it's going slowly.”

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.