Lawmakers should cut their retiree benefits, now

Guest Editorial
On paper House Bill 4087 looks good.

Michigan’s senators and representatives have finally passed a bill that would eliminate lifetime health insurance benefits for lawmakers who have served six years.

It’s something West Michigan lawmakers supported, with Rep. Holly Hughes (R-White River Twp.) championing the change as part of a much needed shared sacrifice by lawmakers with the people of Michigan. Hughes points out that lawmakers’ and other state officials’ salaries were reduced 10 percentbeginning this year and sees the health care benefit change as important to completing the package of reductions.

Hughes does not qualify for the benefits.

The cost of the current retiree health and dental benefit — about $5.3 million annually to cover 348 former lawmakers and their dependents — is hardly a deal breaker in the state’s $43 billion budget. Still, it’s a good move to eliminate the benefit, since many private employers in this state long ago dropped retiree health care benefits. When they did offer them, most businesses didn’t provide lifetime medical benefits to workers who had been on the job just six years. State workers have to put in 30 years to get lifetime health care.

Of course, as with all legislation, the devil is in the details. The proposal awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature only applies to those lawmakers who don’t have six years of service by Jan. 1, 2013, instead of making it effective immediately as was originally proposed.

This earlier version of the bill, passed last summer in the House, would have eliminated the retirement benefit for all but a handful of current lawmakers, but the Senate wouldn’t agree to that. Senators, who have bashed public employees demanding that they pay 20 percent of their current health care benefits — and right now — delayed the cutoff until the end of this legislative session. And that means all but two of the 38 senators and 14 House members will be eligible for lifetime health care coverage at an additional cost to taxpayers of about $500,000 a year.

Again, that’s not going to break the budget, but it’s the principle.

Public and private employees are losing benefits right now in an economy that continues to struggle. But senators can vote to delay their benefit cutoff until most of them would be eligible anyway.

This change has taken far too long and provided too little. In the past decade, 26 bills have been introduced to end or reduce lawmakers’ lifetime health insurance benefit, according to Different versions of this proposal have passed the House and Senate five times, but never the same version, which means the bill never got to the governor’s desk.

Snyder should reject the bill and demand that lawmakers cut their benefits now just as Snyder is demanding that state workers and other public employees take cuts, that welfare recipients take cuts and that pensioners pay more taxes.

That would more closely resemble a shared sacrifice.