Opinion: Share the pain, Legislators: Help pay for your own health coverage
If 2011 is supposed to be the year of shared sacrifice in Lansing, it’s time for the Legislature to do its share. Lawmakers should give up the cushy lifetime health-care benefits they can receive after serving just six years in office.
And not just some members of the Legislature should stop giving this unjustifiable perk to themselves. All of them should -- and now.
Members of the state House were patting themselves on the back last month after voting 107-3 to approve House Bill 4087, which would eliminate lifetime health care for members of the Legislature who began serving after Jan. 1, 2007.
While this is a welcome step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough. There still are about 10 current members of the Legislature who would continue to receive these benefits. We find that indefensible.
At a time when a new pension tax is being imposed on the elderly, funding to public education has been slashed, and public employees are being pilloried for benefits that are out of line with the private sector, it is the height of hypocrisy for any current lawmaker to expect taxpayers to provide him or her with lifetime health-care coverage after leaving office.
State Rep. Dian Slavens, D-Canton, has been vocal on this issue in Lansing. In a recent interview with radio personality Lucy Ann Lance of the Business Insider, she advocated for House Bill 4081, legislation she’s sponsored that would prevent any of the current state lawmakers to collect lifetime health-care. Â “I don’t know anywhere where you can work for six years and get lifetime health-care benefits paid for,’’ she told Lance. “It’s just ridiculous.’’
Yes, it is. And expensive, too. The Senate Fiscal Agency says the state retirement system is currently paying more than $5 million a year to provide this benefit to ex-lawmakers and their dependents. Â At a time when so many people are struggling to make ends meet, it’s galling to think that these former elected officials continue to enjoy such a sweet deal that they secured for themselves while in office.
The way it works now, a lawmaker typically vests in the system after serving six years in office, and begins to receive this “retiree” health-care coverage at the age of 55. There currently are about 350 former lawmakers and family members who receive this coverage, and they only contribute about 3 percent of the cost out of their own pocket. The state picks up the rest.
We don’t think there was ever a case to be made for giving state lawmakers health-care benefits for life. And in the current climate, when both citizens and public employees are feeling the blunt end of state budget cuts, the idea of lawmakers not stepping up and making deep sacrifices of their own would be unconscionable. And by that, we mean all lawmakers, not just the more recently elected ones who understand the voter anger that sent them to Lansing. We call on the Senate to amend H.B. 4087 so that it eliminates the retiree health care benefit for all currently serving members of the House and Senate.
While they are at it, lawmakers also should answer the call for them to begin paying a reasonable share of the health-care benefits that they receive while in office. Right now, they do not contribute toward the cost of their health care -- though members of their staff have to. That’s a double-standard and it should end.
There currently is a bill in the state House that would require lawmakers to contribute 25 percent toward the cost of their health care coverage. So far, House Bill 4575 has languished, and we find that troubling at a time when the Legislature has moved so decisively on issues that affect other employees.
Right now, the House and Senate are trying to reach agreement on another piece of legislation that would require all public employees in Michigan at the state and local level to pay at least 20 percent of their cost of health-care. If Senate Bill 7 is approved, it would include current lawmakers, which would be one way to address the issue. By whatever means, lawmakers should do their part to bring their health-care benefits in line with what’s become the norm in the private sector.
We understand that lawmakers have already felt some of the same budget pain that they’ve had to inflict on others in order to deal with the gaping deficit facing the state. This year, they took a 10 percent pay cut that reduced the salary of a legislator from $79,650 to $71,685. That is indeed a significant loss of income.
But these are extraordinarily difficult fiscal times, and members of the Legislature need to lead by example. There is nothing we’re calling on them to do that they themselves are not seeking to impose on other public employees. It’s a matter of basic fairness. Share the pain, lawmakers. Get your own benefit costs under control, and you’ll be in a much stronger position to demand the same of others.