Docking lawmakers’ pay could be effective – and satisfying

We traditionally have held that amending our federal and state constitutions should be a serious step, taken only after a hard look by our elected officials and the voters.

        Does docking Michigan legislators’ pay for each day past July 1 that lawmakers fail to adopt a state budget meet such a standard?

        A lot of Michigan citizens would say, “go for it.” In her final State-of-the State address to the Legislature recently, Gov. Jennifer Granholm was serious about punishing our lawmakers for not doing their duty.

        “A bipartisan group of freshmen in this House of Representatives have called for a constitutional amendment that will require us to complete the budget by July 1,” Granholm said. Or else?

        “Dock our pay — yours and mine — for every day we don’t get the job done. I call on you to put that constitutional amendment on the ballot. From here on out, let’s make movies in Michigan and let California make the budget dramas.”

        In recent years during Michigan’s intractable recession, our legislators have performed erratically at best. They have left a host of public school districts and state departments repeatedly twisting in the wind.

        “We all took an oath of office to serve the people of Michigan and to always put their interests first,” State Rep. Mike Huckleberry, D-Greenville, remarked last fall. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay legislators who don’t get the job done,” Huckleberry said. “If legislators can’t balance the budget in time to avoid a government shutdown, then they shouldn’t get paid.”

        Under the present Constitution, Michigan legislators have an obligation to balance the state’s budget by Oct. 1. The proposed amendment would move that deadline to July 1 to ensure the budget is balanced in a timely manner. For every day after that deadline that the budget is not balanced, lawmakers wouldn’t get paid.

        Especially frustrated have been public school districts, whose budgets were ravaged because the Legislature didn’t come up with the state aid numbers in good time to plan local budgets. If you don’t believe that, ask school superintendents, other administrators, school board members, parents and students. And they’ll have plenty to say.

        Meanwhile, the legislators — while drawing a lot of criticism — haven’t been suffering in terms of their own financial benefits. Indeed, if a statewide pay-dock proposal were to make the ballot today, it might appeal to enough emotions — and pocketbooks — to pass by a comfortable margin.

        Amending a state or federal constitution is a serious proposition — as it ought to be. The Michigan Constitution of 1963 has been amended only a dozen times. In Michigan, the rules are stringent and the road to getting something on the ballot is long and arduous. It takes a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, which would have to carry by a majority in a statewide vote.

        Another route is by citizen petition, but that would require hundreds of thousands of signatures and statewide ballot approval.

        The odds are long, but it’s not impossible and it sure is tempting. Placing consequences on elected officials in Lansing for endless partisan bickering and ineffective governing makes more sense than having the consequences fall on schools and other essential public services.