In Lansing, you get what you pay for
Recent scandals highlight just how broken the Michigan Legislature is these days.
And, no, the fix isn’t a repeal of term limits.
While the term limits enacted by the people in their infinite wisdom back in 1992 could use modification, the reality is they are here to stay after 30 years in existence.
At the crux of the problem is quality.
As the old adage goes: You get what you pay for.
In Lansing, that’s not much.
With a salary of $71,685 and no pension, being a member of the Legislature’s upper or lower houses doesn’t come anywhere close to paying enough to attract quality candidates of either party.
Consider this: Not only have the last five speakers of the House of Representatives been younger than 40 with at most four years of experience before assuming the gavel, but, by my count, about 31% of the Legislature’s 148 members were 40 or younger at the last election. In 2000, that number was around 13.5%.
To be clear, I’m not saying someone younger than 40 can’t be effective and competent. After all, I’m 37, have held countywide office, worked in the Senate and for presidential campaigns, ran for the House once and was recruited to run again this year.
Rather, there are a great number of would-be representatives and senators with real world experience who can’t afford to run and serve without secondary employment or other sources of income.
To make matters worse, those who do get elected and work on top of their full-time job in the Legislature — especially in industries and professions with significant interests in public policy — are regularly accused of having conflicts of interest.
The numbers don’t lie.
Increasingly, the only Michiganians who can afford to be the people’s voice in state government are either in their 20s and 30s or at the end of their working career. Most can’t walk away from what they do for six years in the House or eight years in the Senate, at least if they’re any good at their job.
Then there are the idiots who come out of the woodwork every couple of years with proposals reducing the Legislature to part-time status.
Talk about penny wise and pound foolish. I have also never understood why some people want to limit the Legislature, a coequal branch of state government. Nobody in their right mind would propose a part-time governor or part-time judiciary.
Another part of the problem is staff pay.
In this age of term limits, most legislators rely on staff. Yet, many staff probably qualify for food stamps thanks to salaries as low as $27,560 for full-time aides in the House. That’s just unacceptable at a time when Michigan State University’s football coach gets $95 million.
The pathetically low salaries have also contributed to recent scandals as legislators find creative ways to supplement official funds through so-called dark money.
An easy fix is increasing pay and office budgets.
Voters can continue throwing out one bum for another, but the overall quality of those in Lansing will only get worse until Michiganians wake up and smell the coffee.
Dennis Lennox is a public affairs consultant and political commentator. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.