It depends on what they decide to pay themselves — and that can turn out to be a lot.
About 10 months from now, applications will go in the mail to Michiganders who want to serve on the new Commission created by voter approval last Nov. 6 of Proposal 2, the Voters Not Politicians (VNP) Constitutional Amendment that will redraw maps of the state’s Congressional and legislative districts for the ensuing decade.
Anyone who read the text of Proposal 2 should know it provides that the compensation to be paid a Redistricting Commissioner is to be “at least 25% of the compensation of the Governor.” A quarter of the Governor’s salary ($177,600) in 2020 will be $44,400. A plain reading of that constitutional amendment means that 25% of the compensation of the Governor is a floor not a ceiling.
Proposal 2 further provides that the Commission will have an operating budget of “at least 25% of the Department of State’s general fund budget.” Most importantly, the VNP Amendment requires that the Redistricting Commission be indemnified from the state’s treasury if the Legislature does not appropriate sufficient funds for Commission operations. In other words, if lawmakers don’t give the panel what it wants, Commissioners can spend it, anyway.
Fact is, Proposal 2 created an omnipotent new state agency with little or no accountability to anyone.
Passage of Proposal 2 allows the Redistricting Commission to exercise both legislative and executive branch functions. Neither the Governor nor any of her department directors that oversee the state’s budget will have any control over the fiscal management of the Commission. The Governor cannot by executive order reduce the Commission’s funding, or the Commissioners’ salaries. The Governor cannot remove a Commissioner. It would require a vote of 10 of the 13 Commissioners to remove a fellow Commissioner.
The first time the Redistricting Commissioners will meet after their selection will be on October 15, 2020. The Commission is given the authority in the VNP Amendment to elect a Chairperson. The Commission shall have the sole power to make its own of rules of procedure. The Commission shall have procurement and contracting authority. It is empowered to hire staff, consultants and legal representation. Nothing in the text of the VNP Amendment prevents a Commissioner at that first meeting or any subsequent meeting from offering a resolution to pay each Commissioner a higher salary. Secretary Benson has no veto power over Commission decisions.
For example, any Commissioner could propose a salary of, say, $161,000 for each member — based on $1,000 for each of the 161 districts the Commission will draw (110 state house, 38 state senate and 13 Congressional). If that motion receives seven affirmative votes from Commissioners, their salaries would be increased. Is that outrageous? If such action was to be challenged in court, a state Supreme Court majority which voted last summer, 4-3, to put Proposal 2 on the ballot would almost certainly conclude that “at least” means a floor, not a ceiling.
Because the VNP Amendment requires at least 10 public hearings to be held across the state to solicit public input, and at least five public hearings for each proposed redistricting plan, nothing prevents the Commission, as part of its compensation package, to include for each Commissioner a leased car. That’s not unthinkable — the Detroit School District until recently provided each of its board members with a car and driver.
Demographically, will the composition of the Redistricting Commission, itself, give the Commissioners a financial incentive to transform themselves from what most have thought will be a part-time into a full-time position by substantially increasing Commissioner compensation? The Michigan Legislature, from our founding as a state in 1837 until 1964, was part-time before it expanded its role over the next decade into full-time status.
Proposal 2 mandated that the 13 Commissioners must have no governmental or political experience, yet they are faced with the daunting task of setting up a new governmental agency, hiring staff, receiving training on the law of redistricting, drawing maps and conducting public hearings. The magnitude of the challenges facing the Commissioners has been laid out in a new 48-page publication produced by The Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, entitled “A COMMISSIONER’S GUIDE TO REDISTRICTING IN MICHIGAN.”
But wait! Maybe Secretary Benson, who has written a book on election law and considers herself a national expert on apportionment, can play a dominant role behind the scenes directing those 13 neophytes in their training and hiring decisions.
Don’t count on it. Benson surely must realize how bad she looked in her recent botched attempt to reach a settlement before trial in the federal redistricting lawsuit brought by former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, who serves as co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the litigation. A three-judge federal panel rejected Benson’s plan. Benson then declined to present a defense of the state law during the trial, further infuriating skeptics about the impartiality of the Secretary.
Also this month, Benson has been blasted for fining a pro-Gretchen Whitmer soft money 527 non-profit a mere $37,500 for illegally spending $2.4 million in TV ads run during the 2018 Democratic primary election campaign. Several key officers of that outside group now work in the Governor’s office.
No, Benson realizes all too well that she must have plausible deniability about any perception that she might be trying to control or manipulate the Commission. So she announced last week that she will appoint a “director” of the Commission, ostensibly to guide and supervise the clueless neophytes, although it is difficult to imagine such a director would disagree on anything with Benson.
In less than two months on the job, Benson has already achieved a reputation as the most partisan SoS in six decades, since Owen J. Cleary in 1953-54. Before he was elected, Cleary had been the Michigan REPUBLICAN Party chairman, from 1949-’53. Cleary was toppled in 1954 by Democrat James Hare, a Michigan State University professor, who served in the office for a then-record 16 years and was considered “unbeatable.” Hare’s record tenure was broken by Democrat Richard Austin, who served a new record 24 years until he was ousted by Republican Candice Miller in 1994. It took three Republican females — Miller, Terri Land, and Ruth Johnson— a combined six four-year terms to match Austin’s time in the office.
Now comes Democrat Benson, not a native Michigander, elected in the “Puce Wave” 2018 election. No, she was never a Michigan Democratic Party chair, but with Mark Brewer standing by, does that matter?