Senate Acts, House Dallies on Pension Spiking and Union Release Time Bills

‘Steve Cook’ bills await a hearing in state House

Two Senate-passed bills now pending in the Michigan House have been dubbed “the Steve Cook legislation,” a reference to a pension spiking scheme involving the head of the state's largest teachers union. One of the bills would ban the practice, and the other would shut down a different scheme that has union officials doing union work at taxpayer expense in public sector workplaces.

Both bills might seem to be a light lift for a legislative body with a 61-47 Republican majority. But more than two months after they were passed by the Michigan Senate, the House has yet to schedule a hearing.

Pension spiking of the type that allowed Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook to use a $201,613 union salary to pad his taxpayer-funded pension would be prohibited under Senate Bill 279. So-called release time arrangements in which union officials are carried on the payrolls of public schools and local governments but freed up to conduct union business on either a full-time or part-time basis would be prohibited under Senate Bill 280.

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Following passage of the legislation by the Senate on Nov. 10, the bills were split up and assigned to separate House committees. Both bills are now before the House Commerce and Trade Committee. But the chairman of that committee, Rep. Joseph Graves, R-Linden, said that they are not on the committee’s agenda.

“At this point these bills haven’t been placed on the committee schedule,” Graves said. “We’ve only scheduled as far ahead as the week of February 9. Looking farther ahead, this legislation is very much a part of the conversation concerning what the committee is going to take up.”

On Feb. 26, 2015, Michigan Capitol Confidential broke the story about Cook’s special deal with the Lansing School District and the Michigan Education Association that permitted him to be considered a school employee for purposes of accruing a higher payout from a state-run school pension system while working full time for the MEA. The pension system currently has $26 billion in unfunded liabilities on its books.

Release time has been an issue for a number of years. In 2011, when Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy (the sponsor of both Senate Bills 279 and 280) was a member of the House, he sponsored legislation to prohibit the practice. That legislation died in the Senate at the end of 2012. This time around, it’s the Senate that has taken the initiative regarding these issues.

There are 19 members of the House Commerce and Trade Committee. Twelve of the members are Republicans: Graves; Tom Barrett of Potterville; Mike Callton of Nashville; Daniela Garcia of Holland; Gary Glenn of Midland; Holly Hughes of Montague; Nancy Jenkins of Clayton; Joel Johnson of Clare; Eric Leutheuser of Hillsdale; Bruce Rendon of Lake City; Pat Somerville of New Boston; and Jason Shepard of Lambertville.

There are seven Democrats on the committee: Wendell Byrd of Detroit; LaTanya Garrett of Detroit; Erika Geiss of Taylor; Leslie Love of Detroit; Jeremy Moss, of Southfield; Andy Schor of Lansing; and Jim Townsend of Royal Oak.

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