News Story

'Union Time on Taxpayers' Dime' Bills Fate Uncertain in GOP House

No timetable yet for action say House leaders

Just before recessing for a two-week Thanksgiving break, the Michigan Senate passed a pair of bills to prohibit two particular schemes that require taxpayers to pay for work done on behalf of teacher and government employee unions. The legislation, Senate bills 279 and 280, has been dubbed by some “the Steve Cook bills.”

Senate Bill 279 would outlaw pension spiking of the type that allowed Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook to use a $201,613 union salary to pad his taxpayer-funded pension.

Earlier this year, Michigan Capitol Confidential broke the story about how Cook took advantage of a special deal between the Lansing School District and the Michigan Education Association that permitted him to be considered a school employee for purposes of accruing a higher payout from a state-run school pension system while working full time for the MEA. The pension system currently has $26 billion in unfunded liabilities on its books.

“It is important to note that these agreements between unions and school districts are not illegal. However, they are most certainly unethical," said Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, who sponsored both bills. “Inflating public school pensions based on union salaries is only hurting a program that is already severely underfunded. We need to close this loophole and make sure MPSERS benefits go only to those they are intended for — public school teachers and employees.”

When asked what the House plans to do with the bill, Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, said, "That is something we'll be looking at in December for sure." Pscholka is chair of the House Appropriations Committee.The Senate passed the ban on pension spiking ban on a nearly party line 25-12 vote. One Republican, Sen. Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights, voted against the measure. The bill was sent to the House and assigned to the House Appropriations Committee.

Senate Bill 280, meanwhile, would prohibit public schools, local governments and the state from entering into so-called release time arrangements in which union officials are carried on public payrolls to conduct union business on either a full-time or part-time basis. Knollenberg introduced a similar bill as a House member during the 2011-2012 legislative session, but it stalled in the Senate.

This session, the measure started in the Senate, where it passed on a 20-17 vote. Six Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting against the legislation. It has been sent to the House and assigned to the House Commerce and Trade Committee.

Rep. Joseph Graves, R-Linden, chairs that committee. He said he does not know what the schedule will be when the House returns from the Thanksgiving break.

Five Republican senators joined Rocca in voting against the prohibition on release time: Tom Casperson of Escanaba; Ken Horn of Frankenmuth; Rick Jones of Grand Ledge; Margaret O’Brien of Portage; and Dale Zorn of Ida.

“Requiring employee unions to cover the cost of benefits for top union personnel was a concern for school districts statewide, and I support the clarification in Senate Bill 279 that unions are responsible for their direct employees,” Horn said, explaining his votes. “With regard to SB 280, we elect local school boards and other local officials to manage employer/employee relationships and determine the best policy for their area. I did not support SB 280 because I feel details of collective bargaining agreements should be kept at the local level.”

Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R- Portage, said she had more than one reason for voting no.

“I was concerned that the bill only involved teacher unions and, like the 80/20 hard-cap, did not affect all public sector unions,” O’Brien said. “Also, to me this doesn’t rise to the level of other education issues we need to be addressing, such as what’s happening in Detroit and what’s happening with third-grade reading.”

“We like to say it is the locals that are in the best position to handle these kinds of issues, but then when something happens that we don’t like at one or two schools we turn around and throw that whole idea out the window,” O’Brien continued. “I’ve never had a single school in my district say this is an issue. If a teacher is in school and a problem comes up during the work day in reference to something involving the union then someone should be able to be there when they are needed.”

Zorn's reasoning was explained by his spokesman, Paul Egnatuk. “Sen. Zorn supports Senate Bill 279 and he voted for it,” he said. “On Senate Bill 280, Senator Zorn voted against that bill and he voted against a very similar one when he was a member of the House.”

“Senator Zorn believes grievances and other problems can and do arise during regular business hours that need to be addressed immediately,” Egnatuk said. “When that happens at times it can put management in an advantage if the other side can’t be represented, at other times it can put management at a disadvantage. That’s why both sides need to be able to be available when they are needed. It works that way in the private sector. That’s the way they do it on the line. Senator Zorn thinks that to not allow that with the schools would be unfair.”

Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst for the Mackinac Center, said the bills would establish fairness for taxpayers.

"It is state taxpayer dollars that are paying for the pension system and these special union deals, and state legislators should ensure these dollars are being spent properly," Skorup said. "If unions believe this is a good use of money, they should fund it themselves."

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.