Arlan Meekhof

Susan J. Demas: Yes, Snyder Will Cave and Kill Teacher Pensions

Let me help you skip to the end of this story. Yes, of course, Michigan will kill pensions for teachers.

And I’ll tell you why. Gov. Rick Snyder wants the state budget done. And when push comes to shove, he rarely fights for the right thing. All you have to do is remember how he’s folded on Right to Work, unnecessary abortion restrictions and the anti-LGBT adoption law. And for good measure, consider how much Snyder has tried to ingratiate himself to President Donald Trump, who’s only delighted in humiliating the guv because he made a big show of being too principled to endorse him.

Then there’s the budget. The first thing you have to know is that ending the pension system is not critical to passing next year’s budget. It’s not going to save us money. To the contrary, the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency says it could cost us $46.2 billion (billion with a “B”) over 40 years to shutter the system.

So using the budget as cover is just about legislative leaders exercising leverage. They considered springing the pension issue during the lame duck session last December, when Republicans were totally pumped up after their big electoral win.

But you’ve got to hand it to Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and company. Holding the budget hostage over this issue that so delights their donors is a great idea from a purely political standpoint.

Our CPA governor can’t stand that. You see, Snyder is a businessman. He is a strong fiscal steward, unlike that liberal woman he preceded (Jennifer Granholm, in case you’re interested), and the budget has always been done by early June because of the great Michigan Comeback (and the fact that we no longer have divided government, so Republicans can basically do whatever they want).

Now Snyder is having a sad because it is already almost mid-June and the budget is still not on his desk. Republican legislators usually like playing ball on this because it’s summer and who wants to work during the few months when Michigan weather is actually tolerable?

But Snyder is a lame duck governor and a very unpopular one at that. So this is an excellent time for conservative Republicans to push him on an issue that is not, we should stress, critical to the budget’s passage. But it’s on the wish list of right-wing groups like Americans for Prosperity-Michigan and part of the education reform lobby’s all-out assault on teachers and public education.

So everyone’s a winner. I mean, except Michigan teachers, whose salaries are stagnating. And enrollment in teacher prep programs has dropped precipitously, a trend that’s only likely to accelerate.

Why? Since Snyder has took office, he’s made it a fairly miserable experience to be a teacher. Budget cuts, charter school expansion and attacks on teacher tenure make conservative interest groups happy. But talk to some parents. You’d be hard-pressed to find many who think their students are blossoming in these conditions, even in excellent public school districts like Okemos, where I reside.

And believe it or not, most teachers care deeply about their students. That’s the reason why they buy school supplies with their own money and stay up late grading papers. They deserve pay and benefits commensurate with their status as educated professionals. If I had my way, teachers would make at least what the average lobbyist in Lansing does.

But let’s get real. Anti-intellectualism is all the rage in a Republican Party led by Trump. His education secretary, big GOP donor Betsy DeVos, is moving heaven and earth to privatize more of our educational system. And teachers’ unions are a big bulwark for Democrats.

So teachers will probably lose this fight in Michigan and many others on a national scale.

If you read history, societies that don’t value education and vilify intellectuals tend to be subjected to some pretty terrible things. Luckily for us, school history requirements will probably soon be replaced by watching reruns of “The Apprentice,” so everything will turn out swell.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: What Would Michigan’s FOIA Reform Really Do?

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

As a nosy reporter, I always want to know what politicians are up to.

That’s harder to uncover in Michigan than most states — 48, to be exact. Because unlike those states, we shield both the Legislature and the governor’s office from our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

So while you can unearth a wealth of information about your township clerk’s office or the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, you’re out of luck if you try to FOIA your state senator or Gov. Rick Snyder's office.

I think most people would like to know more about how their government operates. I think they’d like to know how the governor and legislators are spending their tax dollars and how they’re tackling problems, whether it’s the Flint water crisis or House members abusing their offices (i.e. former Reps. Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser).

But don’t take it from me. Poll after poll shows that trust in government is at an all-time low.

That’s why I don’t buy Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s brusque rebuke to journalists: “You guys are the only people who care about this.”

Meekhof (R-West Olive) was appearing on a Michigan Press Association panel last month in Grand Rapids when he dismissed a question about reforming FOIA (full disclosure: I also spoke at the conference).

The good news is that such legislation exists. Reps. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Jeremy Moss (R-Southfield) introduced a bipartisan package last term, which passed the House. But Meekhof made sure it died in the Senate.

Now Moss has teamed up with Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) to reintroduce the bills this term (McBroom was term-limited in 2016). The press conference announcing the legislation was staged with great fanfare, and was attended by both new House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) and most members of the lower chamber.

Meekhof seems to relish his role as the bespectacled cartoon villain in this scenario, serving as a one-man wrecking crew against open government. (Although there are rumblings that he’ll eventually be willing to allow the legislation on the floor, so long as it doesn’t go into effect until 2019 — when he and the majority of senators will leave Lansing due to term limits).

But I wonder if some of the focus on Meekhof’s obstinence is inadvertently obscuring the fact that the package has serious flaws.

When it comes to the executive branch, the legislation is pretty straightforward. The governor’s and lieutenant governor’s office would be subject to FOIA with a few basic exceptions, such as materials related to pardons or special messages to the Legislature.

But if you read the many bills outlining the new process for getting information out of the Legislature, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s a bit of a mess. Instead of subjecting the House and Senate to FOIA with the same executive branch exemptions, the legislation creates a different law, the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA), complete with a new bureaucratic body.

There are more exceptions for the legislative branch, including advisory communications between public bodies and caucus records (i.e. internal Democratic and Republican communications), which sounds fairly broad. It looks as though the Legislature wants to play by its own special rules.

Another (likely intended) consequence is that as written, the law could put the governor at a tactical disadvantage in negotiating with the Legislature, as more of his/her records could be open to scrutiny.

Under the bills, the House and Senate would put LORA administrators in charge of approving records requests. If they’re at-will employees, that raises concerns about their willingness to disclose information that legislative leaders don’t want the public to see. And I’m concerned that citizens may not have recourse in the courts if their requests are denied.

Most disturbingly, the public wouldn’t have access to records related to ongoing internal or legislative investigations or litigation. That means that LORA would still keep details secret in another Courser-Gamrat debacle. Let’s not forget that the sex scandal, however delectable, was the least significant detail in that case. The Michigan House had to shell out $350,000 to two whistleblowers — meaning that taxpayers ended up footing the bill.

While Meekhof may not believe the public cares about government records, I’m fairly certain that people would like to know more about why hundreds of thousands of their tax dollars were spent in this tawdry episode.

Many of the package’s supporters see it as a good first step and want more transparency measures down the road. You can certainly make the case that something is better than nothing.

But that shouldn’t stop citizens, especially those of us in the media, from casting a critical eye at this FOIA package and digging into what it really will do. That’s our job, after all — and we shouldn’t forget that.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.