Is it time for a part-time legislature?

March 22, 2015

st capitolExactly 142 years ago today, on March 22, 1873, the Michigan Legislature passed Act 220 of 1873, chartering the City of Ludington.  What, if anything, is remarkable about this?  March 22, 1873, was a Saturday.

Last October, I visited my uncle at his farm in northwest Ionia County.  It was harvest time, and he spent the entire day—and much of the night—combining soybeans in his neighbors’ fields and his own.  The neighboring landowners all pitched in to maximize the effort, moving their equipment and trucks from one farm to the next until the job was finally finished well after nightfall.  Farmers have always understood hard work.

And it’s not only farmers who work this hard.  Construction workers, truck drivers, nurses, landscapers and small business owners—just to name a few—all understand what it’s like to wake up early and work late into the night.  Indeed, many studies have shown that Americans are working longer and longer hours across the board.  A 2014 Gallup Poll indicates that American adults work an average of 47 hours per week, and nearly 40 percent of adults in the United States now report that they work at least 50 hours per week.  For most Americans, the 40-hour work week is a quaint idea from a bygone era.

At the same time, Michigan’s legislators appear to be working less and less.  In times past, the Michigan Legislature met six days a week while it was in session.  True, the Legislature was a part-time institution throughout much of Michigan’s history, and most lawmakers had full-time jobs outside Lansing (legislators only earned $3 per session day in 1873).  However, because they were in session for only two or three months of the year, legislators made every effort to maximize their hours working on essential state business while in Lansing.  This is why Saturday legislative meetings—such as the one on March 22, 1873—were common.

These days, the Michigan Legislature is considered full-time and legally remains in year-round session.  As I have explained in previous columns, members of the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives earn full-time salaries; they are the fourth highest paid state legislators in the country, trailing only their counterparts in California, New York, and Pennsylvania.  But don’t let the label “full-time” fool you.  The Michigan Legislature typically meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays only, punctuated by long recesses and vacations.  Although Michigan’s lawmakers now claim to be full-time professionals, and no longer hold separate jobs outside Lansing, they actually work far fewer hours than their predecessors during any given session week.

Compare the Michigan Legislature to the Texas Legislature.  Michigan has a population of roughly 9.9 million people.  The Michigan Legislature is in session throughout the year and its members earn an annual salary of $71,685, plus $10,800 per year for incidental expenses.  Texas has a population of approximately 26.9 million people—more than 2.5 times that of Michigan.  Yet the Texas Legislature is part-time and its sessions are constitutionally limited to 140 consecutive calendar days in any given year.  Texas lawmakers earn an annual salary of $7,200, plus a per diem of $150 for each day the legislature sits in Austin.  According to an official state website, most Texas lawmakers “work separate, full-time jobs in addition to serving in the Texas Legislature.”

Lest there be any confusion, the job of a Texas legislator is not any easier than that of a Michigan legislator.  For example, because the Texas Senate consists of 31 members, each Texas state senator represents and serves 867,742 Texans.  By contrast, the Michigan Senate has 38 members, each of whom represents and serves only 260,526 Michiganians.  And because Texas legislative districts are geographically much larger, members spend a great deal more of their time traveling to meet with constituents.

Other large states restrict their legislative sessions even further.  Florida, now the third most populous state with 19.8 million people, constitutionally limits its regular legislative sessions to 60 consecutive days per year (20 additional days are permitted for special sessions, if needed).  Florida legislators earn $29,697 annually.  Virginia constitutionally limits its state legislative sessions to 60 days in even-numbered years and only 30 days in odd-numbered years.  Virginia’s lawmakers earn approximately $18,000 per year.

Make no mistake:  today’s Michigan Legislature is “full-time” in name only.  Outside Lansing, no reasonable person would consider a Tuesday-through-Thursday job—with long, interspersed vacations—to be full-time.  But this fiction endures, effectively permitting Michigan’s lawmakers to get away with performing part-time work in exchange for a full-time salary.

State Representative Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) has introduced Joint Resolution E of 2015.  If passed by two-thirds of the members elected to and serving in each house of the Legislature, Joint Resolution E would ask Michigan’s voters to amend the state constitution to restrict legislative sessions to 90 consecutive calendar days per year.

If Michigan’s lawmakers were once again required to complete their work in a set, short period, they would be forced to work much harder during their limited legislative session and focus on what is really important.  While the cost savings from lower legislative salaries would not be overwhelming, the taxpayers would realize other benefits.  With only three months to complete their tasks, lawmakers would have less time to pass unnecessary or frivolous bills.  In addition, they would be compelled to spend more time away from Lansing interacting with their constituents, and might even pick up real jobs back in their home districts.  I look forward to the day when the local state representative works hard during his or her three months in Lansing, but pitches in each October to help my uncle bring in the soybeans.

Nick Krieger is a graduate of Ludington High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, and holds a law degree and master’s degree from Wayne State University Law School.  Nick works as an attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals and owns a home in Ludington. The viewpoints expressed in The Mitten Memo are Nick’s own, and do not reflect the views of the Michigan Court of Appeals or Media Group 31, LLC and its affiliates, Mason County Press, Manistee County Press, Oceana County Press.  Contact Nick via e-mail at or follow him on Twitter at @nckrieger.


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