The Real Story Behind the Michigan Teacher Pension Bill

(Note: In addition to being a college counselor, Patrick O'Connor is an award-winning instructor in political science.)

It's been an unsettling week for the public employees of Michigan. Tuesday, the state Senate took up discussion of a bill that would change the retirement plan for all future teachers. The new plan would be a 401k that would replace the combination plan most teachers now have, which is a mix of a 401k and a traditional pension plan.

Just as that debate was heating up, the state House introduced a series of bills that would drastically change the healthcare plans covering many retired municipal employees, including some police and firefighters. Unlike the teacher pension bill, these bills would alter the benefits current retirees are receiving.

To say these actions didn't go over well with the public sector would be an understatement, especially since the financial impact of both plans is unclear. Testimony on the Senate bill for teachers suggested the new plan might actually cost the state more in both the short and long term, while the brand new House bills were introduced with a common theme of "Well, we have to do something!"

By the end of the day Thursday, the central question surrounding both bills was "What's the hurry?" Like all workers eager to tidy things up before heading out for vacation, the legislature usually puts on a burst of speed at the end of its two-year session, but many question the quality of the legislation that's passed. That's especially true this year, when the Republicans will still enjoy large majorities in the House and Senate, and Governor Snyder will enter his last two years of office. Elected officials are supposed to keep an eye on the state's finances, but given the economic complexities of these bills, why rush through what's clearly become two intricate issues when their solutions might become clearer with a few more months of study?

Put simply, this allows both sides to get what they want. Governor Snyder has expressed concern about the Senate's teacher pension bill, a concern strong enough to lead some observers to wonder if he would sign it. On the other hand, his interest in balancing municipal budgets is quite high, so his support of the brand new House bills is clear.

This creates the perfect atmosphere for some good old-fashioned horse trading. Knowing their teacher pension bill was facing an uncertain future, senators now have some leverage to make sure their desires are met; once the House and Governor Snyder approve the changes to the teacher pension plan, the Senate will OK the municipal healthcare changes the House and Governor Snyder want done by December. The atmosphere might be right for a similar bargain when there's more time to discuss both bills, but then again, it might not be--all the more reason to act now.

Citizens who feel all they can do is watch this play out are underestimating their power. Just like the child who makes their bed badly when they're told they can play once they're room is clean, it's up to us to call attention to the poor effort of this process, and support the concerns of Senators David Knezek, Marty Knolleberg, and others. Phone calls are already making an important difference, since both of these bills were supposed to be passed by the end of this week. They haven't passed, in part, because of the attention they've received from average citizens who have told their senators to give the bills more time.

Now is the time to join the discussion. Find your senator's phone number here--it's best to call--and let them know that quality work in this case needs time, not timing.