New state government, familiar local agenda
Even though Lansing will welcome 90 new lawmakers, a new governor in Rick Snyder, and a new administration to the state’s capital next month, the major legislative needs of the region aren’t new at all.
In fact, the wish list is the same worn one that area mayors, council and commission members, city managers and county administrators have requested for longer than most of them care to remember.
“The legislative initiatives haven’t really changed. They’ve been very basic for the last few years, and these are close to the top three legislative issues for the Metro Council,” said Kentwood Mayor Richard Root, who chairs the council’s Legislative Committee.
One burning issue that local public officials want the new state legislature to reform is Public Act 312. The law requires cities and counties to enter into binding arbitration when contract negotiations with police and fire bargaining units hit a brick wall.
Earlier this year, Kent County had to accept such a decision for the 178 members of the Kent County Law Enforcement Association. An arbitrator awarded the union a 2.25 percent wage hike for this year and a 2 percent increase for 2011, while the county was asking its other bargaining units to give back half their gains to help balance the operating budget. The two-year cost to the county from the decision came to $715,236.
As Root sees it, the difficulty with the law is that an arbitrator is limited to either choosing a government’s offer or a bargaining unit’s request, which makes every decision a losing proposition for one party. He would like the state act reformed so an arbitrator can chose a number somewhere between the offers.
“All of the cities are working together. We’re collaborating because we all face the same issues when we go into contract negotiations. PA 312 presets the table. It’s not a win-win — it’s always, how much do you have to give up in a negotiation. So that needs to be clearly addressed by the legislature,” said Root.
“You always richen your (offer) to hope he will choose yours rather than take an even more onerous point. So that’s the trouble with 312, and it needs to be reconsidered. It’s not about taking away rights of union representation and membership. It’s certainly not about dishonoring contracts. It is about creating a fair and level playing field, which 312 has not done,” he added.
Two other issues local officials want changed are Public Acts 7 and 8 — 1967 state laws that serve as a barrier to regional collaboration and consolidation. For example, they require two cities that may want to consolidate a public safety offering such as a fire department to pay the members of the new department the highest existing wages and benefits of the two cities. This almost assuredly means that one city will see its personnel costs go up and the other city won’t get much in the way of savings — not exactly a glowing economic incentive to enter into such an agreement.
“Those (laws) include language that says, basically, you lay union contracts on the table if you’re collaborating between two governments and you choose the very best benefits of both, and then combine those for your new contract. There is language in there that forces that, and that needs to be adjusted,” said Root.
With so many new lawmakers coming to Lansing and with many of them without any state legislative experience, it is likely going to take some time and a major effort from local public officials to get these freshman legislators up to speed on these vital issues, especially for those coming into the state House. Whether they will be able to make a favorable impression fairly quickly that will lead to changes in those state laws in 2011 is anyone’s guess. Past efforts haven’t produced the desired results for a number of reasons.
“That brand new representative, at the end of the first year of the learning curve, is already beginning his campaign for the next term. So distractions are mighty, especially in the House. In the Senate, you’re serving out four-year terms, and that gives them a chance to settle in and work their way through it,” said Root.
“It’s quite clear to me that the long-serving staffers are going to be quite important and, certainly, the lobbyists that have been there for a long time will have the institutional and historical knowledge that the representatives won’t have. This rapid turn, for the voter to understand, creates a secondary level of governance no matter how you approach it. Staffers and lobbyists will have far more sway and influence over new legislators because they simply don’t know, and there is no institutional memory left.”
The Metro Council plans to meet with the area’s state representatives and senators early next year, possibly sometime in January. This time, though, Metro Council Executive Director Don Stypula said the agency won’t be treating them to a full breakfast, as it has regularly done in the past. “We’ll invite all the legislators from this area,” he said. “We’ll buy them a doughnut and maybe some coffee. But this will be a business meeting.”