Michiganders need to get a grip on how much their elected officials are being paid.
BOB LaBRANT: Abolish the State Officers Compensation Commission. Replace it with an automatic Consumer Price Index (CPI) adjustment.
“After 55 years, it is time to amend the Michigan Constitution and abolish the State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC), which since 1968 has been empowered to adjust salaries and expense accounts for elected officials in the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of state government.
“For the past 20 years, the salaries of elected officers in all three branches have not been increased. In 2009, salaries for elected state officials were in fact cut by 10% and those cuts have never been restored. The governor’s salary back in 2003 at the beginning of Jennifer Granholm’s first term was $177,000, but with that 10% salary cut the governor’s salary throughout Rick Snyder’s and Gretchen Whitmer’s administrations has stayed at $159,300. Every department director in the governor’s cabinet under Governor Granholm had a lower salary than that of the governor. Today every department director is paid a higher salary than Governor Whitmer. Those cabinet members’ salaries are not set by the SOCC.
“Using another, even more dramatic example, the state’s top lawyer, Dana Nessel, the Attorney General, is paid just $112,410. It has been reported that 80% of her assistant attorneys general, under their civil service contract, are paid more than their boss.
“Supreme Court Justices also had their pay frozen. This year, the SOCC agreed to recommend an increase in Supreme Court justices pay by 7% from $164,410 to $181,483 this year, and recommended another 7% increase the following year. Most attorneys in private practice who have cases before the Supreme Court have incomes far in excess of the salaries paid to Michigan Supreme Court justices. In major law firms across the state, it is now common for first-year associates to draw six figure starting salaries.
“The salaries paid to elected state officers compared to their subordinates violates every rule of effective management taught at business and public administration schools.
“The SOCC is the product of a 1968 constitutional amendment which removed from the Legislature the power to set salaries and expenses for state officers. SOCC was one of three amendments approved by voters on the August 1968 statewide primary election ballot (Judicial Tenure Commission and gubernatorial appointment replacing special elections to fill judicial vacancies were the others).
“The SOCC was created in 1968 as a seven-member body with a four-year term appointed by the governor. No Commissioner can be reappointed or be a member or employee of the legislative, judicial, or executive branch. The SOCC meets every two years for no more than 15 session days.
“Between 1968-2002, pay recommendations from the SOCC automatically took effect unless rejected by the Legislature. But in 2002 the Legislature found it was facing rising anger from a public that realized lawmakers were ‘gaming the system’ by routinely accepting pay boosts by simply not voting on them. Consequently, the Legislature, by a two-thirds vote in each chamber, placed on the August 2002 statewide primary ballot a constitutional amendment to require that state lawmakers, instead of being allowed to accept the recommendations of the SOCC by taking no action on them, had to pro-actively vote “Yes” to adopt them if they wanted the extra cash. Predictably, voters approved that 2002 amendment. Subsequently, since 2003, lawmakers have feared voters’ wrath if they accepted SOCC recommendations by voting “Yes,” so they ignored them, meaning the recommendations died. That’s why salary hikes for themselves and other state officers, by default, have never been increased for two decades.
“Michigan, under its four Constitutions, has experimented with several separate ways to adjust state officer salaries. Article 9 of the 1850 Constitution, in effect from 1850-1908, actually froze into the Constitution the salaries for state officers. To increase a state officer salary required adoption of a constitutional amendment. The State Board of Canvassers under the 1850 Constitution was comprised of the Secretary of State, State Treasurer, and Commissioner of the State Land Office. Article 9 limited salaries for those three officers to $800 a year. In 1894, the Board of State Canvassers falsely certified that the voters had actually approved a constitutional amendment increasing their and other state officers’ salaries when, in fact, a gubernatorial investigation uncovered voters actually rejected the proposed amendment. Governor John Rich, a Republican, using his constitutional power to remove state officers for corrupt conduct, fired those three state officers in March 1894 and named successors to fill their vacancies. The 1835, 1908 and initially the 1963 Constitutions empowered the Legislature to enact laws setting state officer salaries. The 1835 Constitution limited legislators to no more than $3 a day per diem.
“The current Legislature should adopt a joint resolution to place on the August 2024 statewide primary ballot a constitutional amendment to abolish the SOCC and have the Secretary of State, in December 2024 and every two years thereafter, adjust the salaries and expense accounts of elected state officials to reflect the changes in the consumer price index (CPI) using the same methodology the Secretary of State currently uses to automatically adjust contribution limits, fines, registration and reporting thresholds under both the Michigan Campaign Finance Act and the Michigan Lobby Law.
“In November 2022 voters approved a long overdue amendment modifying legislative term limits, especially for the state House of Representatives. It raises the question — why would a person invest 12 years of their life in a job whose salary had not been increased for 20 years and with no real prospect that it would be increased anytime soon?
“While the Legislature is at it, it should also pass a joint resolution to place on the 2024 August primary ballot a proposal to revise the 2018 constitutional amendment which created the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC). The Constitution allows the Commission itself to set its own salaries and that they be at least 25% of the salary of the governor ($39,825). The Commission subsequently decided that it did not think that 25% floor was generous enough and voted to increase that percentage to 35% of the gubernatorial salary ($55,775) and even voted later for a 7% cost of living adjustment. After blowback from the media and general public, the Commission rescinded that 7% increase at its next meeting.
“That 25% salary floor should also be a ceiling with CPI adjustments made by the Secretary of State once a decade. The only state governmental body with districts that are not drawn by the ICRC is the Michigan Court of Appeals (COA). The decennial duty for redrawing COA districts should be given to the ICRC, keeping the current constitutional requirement of drawing districts of nearly equal population using whole counties. The Legislature did not redistrict the COA after the 2020 census.
“Redistricting Commissioners who adopted maps for the 2022 elections pretend they are still actively involved with redistricting. Commissioners say they are still in operation prepared to litigate any and all challenges to the state house, state senate and Congressional districts.
“Today, redistricting commissioners are still being paid at the same level as they were in 2021 when they were holding public hearings and drawing district maps. Commissioners seem content to continue collecting paychecks. Do Commissioners maintain that they still have a full-time job because redistricting lawsuits can be filed up to the filing deadline for the 2030 elections? If so, they shouldn’t be able to. A 180-day statute of limitations should be established in the Constitution for challenging the ICRC plans before the Michigan Supreme Court. After that, cut off the Commissioners’ gravy train, halting those Commissioner paychecks.”