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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/12/legislature-snyder-can%e2%80%99t-deny-public-their-2014-crack-at-right-to-work-tax-changes/

Peter Luke:
Eye on the Capitol

Insights into the inside workings of Michigan's state government from a veteran newspaper correspondent.

Legislature, Snyder can’t deny public their 2014 crack at Right to Work, tax changes

Gov. Rick Snyder and Republican lawmakers are aiming to funnel reaction to what has been an extraordinary two years of controversial legislation onto the partisan section of the 2014 general election ballot. How negative the reaction is will determine the shelf life of the pro-business agenda they’ve spent two years enacting.

The 96th Michigan Legislature is hardly the first to ram through bills without public hearing on deadline well into the bleary early morning hours. Transparency is not the forte of the place. After all, this is a body that exempts itself and its 148 members from the Freedom of Information Act. Neither does the Open Meetings Act apply during closed-door sessions where the real work gets done — caucus meetings and workgroups of legislators, staff and lobbyists.

In the past, however, the sausage making has proven to be popular (Proposal A) or not as unpopular as expected (the 2007 budget deal that raised income taxes). Not too many homeowners complain that one of the most consequential tax cuts in Michigan history –the 1994 voter-approved inflation cap on property taxes — was created in the form of an amendment offered at the last minute without public hearing near the conclusion of days of round-the-clock legislating.

It’s different this time. Business owners should be happy that an agenda they’ve long dreamed of has been enacted on the premise that it will remake the economy. But unlike past “game-changers,” this one creates real identifiable losers Republicans have relied on in the past for gubernatorial year success: seniors, union households or both.

After slashing property taxes for homeowners in 1993, Gov. John Engler’s first post-primary stop the following year was to a Chrysler plant where he was cheered by United Auto Workers members. It was the first of many factory visits that year. Hard to imagine Snyder following a similar itinerary less than 20 months from now.

The rationale for Right to Work and the 2011 business tax overhaul is that, after a decade of steep job losses, Michigan had to remake its reputation, if it is to attract new businesses to replace the ones that have folded or shrunk in size.

The tax overhaul, which included a new Corporate Income Tax, doesn’t seem to have impressed the business climate ranking folks. But the tax plan’s cost to retirees, through higher income taxes, delayed past the November election as filings for the 2012 tax year aren’t due until April 15, will be clear by the time Snyder, the House and Senate are all up for re-election in 2014. By then, seniors, having already paid out hundreds in higher taxes over two years, will know what Democratic critics were talking about way back in the fall of 2012.

The many facets of Right to Work

Right to Work legislation has an effective date in late March. But it won’t actually have an impact in unionized workplaces until after current collective bargaining agreements expire or are renewed. In the private sector, the United Auto Workers’ national contract with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler runs through 2015.

In the public sector, the Michigan Civil Service Commission sets the rules regarding the state government’s 35,000 unionized workers, not the Legislature. Attorney General Bill Schuette and lawmakers say the board’s Democratic majority should comply with the law anyway. That’s not going to happen, unless the Michigan Supreme Court orders the commission to do so. Police and fire employees, by far the majority of municipal workers represented in bargaining units, are exempt from the law.

Most interesting is what happens in school districts across Michigan in the coming three months before the legislation takes effect. Expect the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers to seek years-long extensions of existing contracts before Right to Work kicks in. Expect school boards and administrators to extract concessions on work rules and economics in return.

For this agenda to be a political success for Republicans, the economy will have improve significantly. Voters will then have to conclude that the state GOP’s agenda, and not national factors that benefited President Obama last month, was critical to achieving gains in job growth and personal income. And even then, the benefits will have to be seen as worth the cost to pocketbooks and Michigan’s cultural identity.

Pols erect personal protection

That Republicans themselves harbor doubts about the popularity of what they’ve passed this month is evidenced by the limits they’ve placed on challenging it.

Legislation making it more difficult to recall public officials was rushed through on the same week that Republicans jammed through bills liable to spark recall efforts.

Making it harder to recall legislators for the votes they’ve cast isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you consider such efforts to be punitive, distracting and, for the most part, unproductive. The multi-bill package essentially makes recall efforts very difficult by winnowing the time frame that recall drives can be mounted and completed. It leaves it to the appellate courts — after a partisan Board of State Canvassers predictably deadlocks 2-2 — to ultimately determine when a recall signature drive can even begin.

Democrats called it an abuse of power, a self-grant of immunity rooted in cowardice to shield Republicans from the electoral consequences of their voting behavior. Not really. There are already scheduled elections in 2014 and every lawmaker who voted to raise taxes on seniors or allow workers to skate on paying union fees will be on the ballot in August and November. Whether Republicans indeed are immune will depend on the political competence of their opponents.

At least the move is constitutional. Republicans are now addicted to the cynical habit of making the Michigan Constitution as malleable as House of Representatives rules. The Right to Work bills contain $1 million appropriations to, according to the bill language, respond to public inquiries and make information available to employers and employees about the change. Now that’s “value-for-money” budgeting. It also blocks the public from the opportunity to vote on the measure themselves.

Inserting fewer than 100 words of appropriations language in bills originally referred to the Senate Committee on Economic Development and the House Commerce Committee apparently makes them appropriations bills. The framers of Michigan’s 1963 Constitution re-committed to giving Michigan’s citizens the right to put statutes approved by the Legislature on the general election ballot for voters to either endorse or reject. But they logically exempted from challenge budget bills that contain the legal authority to run state government.

Given the stakes on Right to Work, the Michigan Supreme Court will be given another chance to play referee and throw a flag on constitutional violations that Snyder, who endorsed it with his signature, says is now “normal” legislative procedure. Or a partisan majority of justices will play legislator, but at twice the salary, and, once again, endorse the practice as well.

Which means that in exchange for “freedom to work,” you’ve given up your full freedom to vote.

Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.

2 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. John Q,

    The changes to the recall laws have effectively nullified a constitutional right of Michigan voters. Too bad that the do-gooders at the Bridge and other so-called centrists organizations have largely been silent on this gross political overreach.

  2. Jim Storey

    Wonder if Mr. Luke as well as many other Michigan news writiers who have written or broadcast on this subject are present or past members of the newspaper writers or broadcasters unions? If so, that, in the name of transparency, should have been disclosed when they were “reporting” or discussing RTW. However, journalism has changed from the day when the drive for objectivity was the holy grail of the craft’s practioners to today’s writers and broadcasters who barely conceal their bias while claiming the cover of objectivity.

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