Why Are Michigan House Republicans Continuing These Union Scams?

New Legislature should take up pension spiking, release time in 2017

As the latest legislative session came to a close, Michigan House Republicans failed to put a stop to two union schemes that are ripping off taxpayers. It is bizarre that, despite having a huge majority, the GOP continues to allow unions to misspend tax dollars for the sole purpose of enriching their officials.

Earlier this year, the state Senate passed two bills ending these special union deals. Senate Bill 279 dealt with union pension spiking schemes, in which the state’s largest union teamed up with school districts to pretend its officials are still working for schools when they really are private employees of the union. This enables the union workers to artificially inflate their taxpayer-funded pensions. In at least one instance, this meant turning an approximately $8,000 annual pension into one worth over $100,000. Senate Bill 280 involved union release time, which makes taxpayers pay for the salaries of union officials who are released from their teaching duties to work full time on union business.

The bills made it through the Senate as well as a House committee but died on the floor.

These special deals are an affront to taxpayers, who are on the hook for the cost. The state should not allow the practice of taking money directly out of the classroom and putting it into the bank accounts of unions. It should also not do anything that contributes to Michigan’s $26.7 billion pension liability.

The Michigan Senate was right to pass these bills, and its members will be the same in 2017. The Michigan House will maintain its strong Republican majority with new incoming members. Both chambers should take up these issues early in the new year.

Editor’s Note: Jarrett Skorup testified in front of a House Committee on the union release time bill. That testimony is reprinted below.

When people are paid by taxpayers, they should be doing work for taxpayers. The money given from the state to local school districts is intended to be spent providing educational services to students, with the hope that these services provide benefits to taxpayers.

But too often, that is not the case. In about 70 school districts across Michigan, taxpayers pay union officials for “release time” – an arrangement where the employee explicitly works for a private union, not for the district and not for taxpayers.

Michigan districts spend at least $3 million directly on salaries for these released union officials, and much more if you add in the costs of providing these people with health and pension benefits. Districts pay other costs for these “ghost teachers” as well, including the salaries of their replacements in the classroom.

Here’s one example of things that union officials who are on release time do: When the Legislature was considering right-to-work legislation in 2012, Maryanne Levine, the president of the Chippewa Valley School District local union, was protesting on the capitol lawn and comparing legislators to Adolf Hitler.

“We must close union offices, confiscate their money and put their leaders in prison. We must reduce workers’ salaries and take away their right to strike," Levine quoted Hitler as saying. "Those were the words of Adolf Hitler, May 2, 1933 … These are strong words, but that is exactly what they are doing and the path they seem to be taking (in Lansing)."

She was joined by many other teachers, though it was a school day. And I don’t have a problem with that. Everyone should have the right to protest and as long as they are properly using their days off, that’s fine.

But unlike most public and private sector workers, being there was easy for Levine — she is paid by taxpayers, but works full-time to advance the interests of her union. Protesting on the capitol lawn is just another day at the office for union officials released from their teaching duties.

Levine is an elementary school teacher who is released from her duties as a teacher to work for the union. That's the perk of being union president. According to the district, she make $145,000 in total compensation, with most of it being paid by the district. Chippewa Valley also pays six figures for the union vice president to spend half his time on union business.

Ms. Levine has every right to protest and make these comparisons. But she should do it on her own dime.

Several districts pay over $100,000 a year to provide union officials with this perk. These include Chippewa Valley, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Warren and Wayne-Westland.

Taylor Schools employs four people who spent a significant part of every day working for the local union rather than taxpayers. That district has run significant deficits in recent years.

The vast majority of districts, including most large districts, are able to operate without taxpayers picking up the tab for release time. Detroit, Dearborn, Troy, L’Anse Creuse, Forest Hills, Traverse City, to name just a few.

The purpose of a public education system is to educate students, not fund union operations. These arrangements are unfair to taxpayers and a misuse of public funds. They should be ended.

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.