JACK SPENCER: Looking through the political microscope
Lawmakers make sure they can win for losingWhen confronted with a political issue the natural thing to do is analyze it in terms of personal opinion. “What do I think about this?” we ask ourselves. Generally, we tend to lean toward one side of an issue or the other. Sometimes we reserve judgment until more facts can be brought to light. Often, our opinion of the source from which we initially hear about the issue plays a key role in our reactions as well. But there is another way of analyzing issues. It is to consider them from the perspective of what we might call a political microscope. It requires divorcing one’s own slant, or opinion, which is probably why so few people ever think about it. A great example of this was the 38 percent salary hike lawmakers obtained a dozen years ago. Needless to say, Michigan residents responded to news of the increase with outrage. Meanwhile, the vast majority of lawmakers protested that there was nothing they could do about it. That was the truth, but it did little to quell the anger of the public. So, from a political standpoint, was the pay hike a bitter pill for lawmakers to swallow? For most, it was quite the opposite. A panel, (which did not include lawmakers) called the State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC), had made the pay hike recommendation. Under law, a SOCC recommendation could only be rejected by a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate. That meant that if only 13 senators refused to vote down the pay hike, it would automatically go into effect. Sure enough, 13 senators, who wouldn’t be facing re-election, announced that they would do just that. This meant it was “game over.” The big increase was a done deal. Delving into the mechanics of the SOCC, and what has happened to the system since, is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that SOCC came into being in 1968 in response to public outcries that “lawmakers should never be allowed to vote directly on their own salaries.” Actually, it is a terrific example of the phrase: “be careful what you ask for.” At the time of the 38 percent pay hike, lawmakers shouted their opposition to it as loudly as possible. To demonstrate this stance, the House went ahead with a resolution to turn down the pay increase – even though they knew it would have no effect. When the issue was taken up, more than 100 House members voted to reject the pay hike. Most of the public, who probably knew less about the situation than readers of this column just learned, were embittered. In fact, the pay raise remained a pertinent issue with voters for several years. However, the 38 percent pay hike was a black eye for the legislature as a whole, but not for the vast majority of individual legislators. Ironically, viewed through an objective political microscope, the pay increase generated an awful lot of positive publicity for them. Remember, there were 100-plus House members who voted to reject the hike. Take that number and multiply it by all of the press releases, local articles, and TV and radio interviews in which they vehemently declared opposition to the raise. The same situation existed regarding the 25 senators who weren’t among “the 13” who had refused to reject the hike. Once calculated, the sum total of positive press received by individual lawmakers (who were smart enough to express outrage over the situation) was much greater than the negative headlines and reports about “their” pay boost. It was an outstanding example of the longstanding dynamic under which voters say, “they’re a pack of rascals, but my representative or senator agrees with me, so he or she is OK.” Now, let’s apply the political microscope to a current issue. Wayne State University (WSU) reached agreement with its faculty union on an eight-year contract in late February. Those on both sides of the bargaining table admit the deal was struck hurriedly. The union wanted a new contract in place before the new Right to Work law officially goes into effect on March 28. With the contract now secured, all WSU faculty members will be required to pay union dues and fees through 2021. According to university officials, they got concessions at the bargaining table by taking advantage of the union’s eagerness to secure a contract. The extent to which that was so remains a contentious subject. In the legislature, the issue now is whether WSU’s eight-year contract should make it ineligible for performance fund dollars. Money from the Higher Education Performance Fund is given to universities based on how well they contain costs. Many Republicans argue that a long-term contract is likely to be a bad for taxpayers. Considering overall economic conditions, the flexibility of shorter-term contracts would be more prudent, they argue. However, if WSU can show that savings of 10 percent or more resulted from the contract, its eligibility for fund dollars would be safe. So far, it hasn’t been able to do that. In fact, it seems to be dodging the question. Yet, there is one aspect of the situation few people are talking about. Of the state’s 15 public universities, WSU has consistently done the worst job of meeting performance fund criteria. Arguably, it didn’t stand to get a lot of money from the performance fund anyway. That could have been part of the reason it was willing to risk agreeing to the contract in the first place. No one can know for sure what will happen. But here’s a likely scenario - The House will pass its version of a budget in which WSU gets no performance fund dollars. But the Senate’s version of a budget will include some performance fund money for WSU. It will all be worked out in a conference committee, with the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder weighing in. In the end, WSU will get some performance fund dollars. However, the question will be whether its funding amount actually got reduced due to the contract. The answer to that question will be a matter of interpretation. That’s because, even without the contract controversy, the amount of money WSU stood to receive is debatable. Looking through our political microscope, virtually all of those involved would come out with a politically satisfactory end result under this scenario. In other words, they’ll have plausible explanations to give their constituencies regarding the individual roles they played. House Republicans will be able to accurately claim they wanted WSU to get no performance fund dollars, but couldn’t convince the Senate and Governor to go along with the idea. Some Senate Republicans will be able to make the same claim. Other Senate Republicans will be able to say the contract was taken into account, and the only disagreement was over how large of a penalty WSU should have suffered. Meanwhile, Democrats in both the House and Senate will claim GOP Right to Work zealots reduced the amount WSU received. WSU officials will be able to make the same claim, which to some extent, could cover up the university’s overall weak showing as regards cost containment.