Public records now at public’s fingertips
The value of government transparency and the need for more of it has been on full display since the Mackinac Center and two other watchdog groups released the Michigan Government Salaries Database in late March.
The new database — which is easily searchable and made available as a public service by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan Coalition for Open Government and Michigan Press Association — contains salary information of nearly 300,000 public employees.
“As part of our government transparency project, the Mackinac Center often obtains data on the compensation of government employees in Michigan,” Michael Reitz, Mackinac Center executive vice president, was quoted by My Bay City as saying. “We use these public records to fact-check claims about salaries, verify data from other open records requests and hold governments accountable for their spending. We and our partners now offer this database as a service to taxpayers and other watchdogs.”
While not the first online database of public employee salaries in Michigan, the new database is the most extensive one and makes it easy for people to access public records.
“This database can provide information on whether there are disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc.,” Jane Briggs-Bunting, founding president of the Coalition for Open Government, was quoted in the Lansing State Journal as saying.
Lansing State Journal columnist Judy Putnam said publishing public employee salaries — something the LSJ once did — may upset some people, but transparency is justified.
“The bottom line is that public salaries should be available in a transparent way. Why? Because the employer of public workers is us, the citizens,” Putnam wrote.
She listed some of the common arguments against a database and explained why, despite them, the salaries should remain public.
- It just gives the nosey parkers fodder. True, but public information doesn’t require a noble motivation to access it.
- It’s already public. Yes, you can use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the information if you know how. It’s not a transparent way to run government.
- Making employees names available puts them at risk. The database doesn’t offer any personal information beyond salary and position. It’s a throw-everything-at-the-wall argument.
- A range of salaries is available. True again. The Michigan Civil Service Commission posts them. It’s a fair point, but is that enough?
The Leelanau Enterprise interviewed a county administrator who said he doesn’t mind efforts to publish such information.
The new database is not considered a threat by county administrator Chet Janik, who served previously in education positions that would have put him on the list.
“I don’t have an issue,” Janik said. “When I worked at NMC (Northwestern Michigan College), Buckley and Charlevoix Schools, my salary was public. “The positions are supported by tax dollars. So, I have no problem with the access,” he said.
“I like to get it from a source like the Mackinac Center that has a reputation for credibility, rather than from another organization without credibility. It’s more reliable,” local government watchdog Steve Mikowski told The Leelanau Enterprise.
Through the database, citizen watchdogs identified errors in the posted salaries of some Department of Corrections employees. In some cases, employees were listed as receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they do in reality. The error was made by the state’s Office of Retirement Services, which is responsible for managing the pensions of Michigan’s public employees.
“One must now question if this FOIA response is the only thing ORS is doing in error,” Reitz said. “Has the office based retirement calculations on these erroneous and inflated salaries? How long has ORS had bad salary data? Why didn’t anyone within the office question why a Department of Corrections employee was supposedly paid $400,000? Legislators should conduct a thorough review of this office and its record keeping procedures and demand answers.”
Investigative reporter David Bailey, of WZZM 13 in Grand Rapids, asked the state if the inflated numbers were used to calculate pensions. The ORS said they were not, adding, “Thorough reviews of record keeping is already part of the ongoing auditing process that occurs, through both internal and external audits.”
Bailey noted a new report by the Michigan Office of the Auditor General that found ORS understated pension liabilities by $143 million in 2014-15 because it lacks a control process to ensure correct data.
The state provided the Mackinac Center new salary numbers for the 4,500 employees in question, but that new data set was also flawed. A third set of salaries, which is apparently correct, has been posted to the database.
As the Center obtains additional records through the Freedom of Information Act process, more government employees will be added to the database.
“Our database made it more easily available, while uncovering potentially serious administrative issues in an important government office,” Mackinac Center President Joseph Lehman explained. “One of the Mackinac Center’s signature contributions to policy discourse in its 30-year history has been making public data more accessible to everyone, not just politicians and bureaucrats. We will continue to fight for an open, transparent government.”
Access the Michigan Government Salaries Database
My Bay City: Salaries Unveiled
LSJ: Database Reveals State Employees’ Salaries
LSJ: Public Pay Database is Painful but Justified
Leelanau Enterprise: Website Offers Government Salaries
Michigan Government Salaries Database Corrected after State Admits Fault
WZZM 13: State Leaders Deny Deeper Problem Regarding State Salary Mistakes
Why Mackinac Published Names and Wages of Government Workers in a Searchable Database
WZZM: State of Michigan Provides Wrong Salary Data for Thousands of Workers
Michael Cohen of Capital City Recap Interviews Jarrett Skorup on Database Release
Salaries have been frozen for 15 years
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young Jr. just announced his retirement. Young served on Michigan’s highest court for 18 years, and you’re sure to hear lots of positive commentary about his service — and rightfully so. But there’s an interesting fact you probably didn’t know about him or his long-serving colleague Chief Justice Stephen Markman: They’ve likely received fewer pay increases during their careers on the court than any other public servants over the same period.
In the first couple of years of Young’s tenure on the Supreme Court, the State Officers Compensation Commission — the public body that recommends salary rates for certain public officials — awarded pay increases of 14 percent (2001) and 2.9 percent (2002). That pushed the justice’s salaries to $164,610, and that’s where they’ve stayed ever since.
Why the stagnant wages? It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause, but a contributing factor no doubt was a 2002 constitutional amendment that changed the process for increasing justices’ pay. After voters approved this amendment, the Legislature now had to approve the salary recommendations made by compensation commission before they would go into effect. And for a variety of reasons — Michigan’s economic doldrums of the 2000s, subsequent budget battles, government shutdowns, etc. — the Legislature has not approved any pay increases for justices for the last 15 years. This despite the commission’s repeated calls for raising these salaries.
The Legislature should reconsider this. Over the course of this long salary freeze, Michigan has changed its national rank for supreme court justice pay from 2nd highest in 2002 to 31st in 2017, according to the National Center for State Courts. Now, to be clear, the purpose of compensating justices is not to “win” a national rankings contest. But these rankings are nevertheless helpful, because Michigan does need to keep these salaries at a competitive rate if it wishes to attract and retain high-quality, professional judges that will serve the people well.
And the current salaries offered Michigan Supreme Court justices are on the verge of becoming uncompetitive. For instance, an aspiring state justice might also be thinking of pursuing a job in the federal courts. There, district judges make $205,100 and circuit judges make $217,600, 25 percent and 32 percent more, respectively, than Michigan Supreme Court justices make.
Even judges in lower courts in Michigan might soon start making as much or more than members of the state’s highest court. Historically, these judges’ pay was tied to Supreme Court salaries: Court of Appeals judges made 92 percent of Supreme Court salaries; circuit and probate judges made 85 percent; and district judges made 84 percent. But a new law created last year did away with this arrangement. Changes to lower court judges’ salaries will be based on what the Civil Service Commission approves for nonunionized state employees. With a growing economy contributing to increased government revenue, it’s likely that the commission will approve raises for state employees over the next couple of years. If that happens and no change is made to Supreme Court pay, Court of Appeal judges may be making more than justices on the Supreme Court.
With taxpayers’ interest in mind, my Mackinac Center colleagues and I are often critical of the type and amount of compensation government officials award their employees. We have argued that the way school districts pay teachers is outdated and harmful. We’ve said that the state could save more than $5 billion by right-sizing government employee benefits and that it should get out of the business of offering defined-benefit pensions. Finally, we just released a database of all of the salaries of public employees, so Michigan taxpayers can play watchdog to government employers.
But none of this means that salaries for public officials can never be increased. Governments need to offer competitive salaries to attract competent employees. In the case of the Supreme Court, the state may start to risk losing high-quality candidates because too many of them have more lucrative options elsewhere. The Legislature should consider this before continuing the 15-year-long salary freeze on Supreme Court justices.
Michiganders create innovations, not merely solutions, when problem-solving
In 2011, DTE Energy sent a fleet of flatbed trucks into the residential areas of Highland Park to pull out the street lights.
It was a dark time for Highland Park – literally. The city, a small, poor community just north of Detroit, had run up a street lighting tab that it couldn’t afford to pay. It struck a deal with DTE allowing the utility to take back the lights in exchange for debt forgiveness.
Residents said that coming home from work to dark streets and alleys was demoralizing.
Not long after, a group called Soulardarity decided to crowdfund some money to purchase and install a single solar-powered street light as a demonstration project. The group’s founder says that solar lights are more affordable and reliable than ever – available even during power outages.
The first light went up in 2012. Public interest in the project started to grow, and activists were able to install a few more lights the following years. Soulardarity hatched a plan to light all Highland Park’s streets using solar, but couldn’t get the city on board.
Residents favored the plan but weren’t willing to wait on the city. With help from Soulardarity, they pooled resources and partnered with a local manufacturer to buy solar street lights at bulk prices. As of 2015, 53 solar street lights had been installed around Highland Park homes and businesses, with help from the city to ensure that the installations were safe and legal.
Now, people in Highland Park say, the neighborhoods have restored a sense of community and security, all while benefitting the earth. Soulardarity is working on another bulk purchase of 100 lights.
This story is a textbook example of “civil society” at work. Civil society provides social goods by relying on voluntary institutions like networks of neighbors or private community groups. The solutions provided by civil society are created by the people closest to the problem, rather imposed by bureaucracies that shuffle tax dollars and design programs that may never deliver solutions at all.
That failure to deliver is the story of what happened with transit in Detroit. After spending years talking about the M1 light rail and millions of dollars planning it, lawmakers cancelled the project. The train would have connected Downtown to the rest of the Woodward corridor, something that entrepreneur Andy Didorosi had hoped would bring about “the new era of Detroit.” When he saw that the project had been declared dead, he said he was furious.
He channeled that anger into something productive: a private transportation business called the Detroit Bus Company. He initially intended to only operate one bus as a demonstration project on behalf of Detroit residents. But the company grew quickly, and its innovations even spurred the Detroit Department of Transportation to make improvements to its own service.
Now the Detroit Bus Company fills gaps in the city’s bus service and uses its profits from paid city tours to give free rides kids so they can get to after-school enrichment programs.
Didorosi’s solution is a win-win for Detroiters, but the outrageously expensive light-rail program would have burdened city residents in a plethora of ways. Now they enjoy freedom from debt and a new transit option that supports the community in ways that a government-operated train could never have accomplished.
It's time for free-market reformers to act
When Michigan Republicans won control of the governor’s office and state Legislature in 2010, the state was ready for economic reform. After eight years under Gov. Jennifer Granholm — with a Democratic majority in the House through her second term — the state lost 805,000 jobs over a decade, per-capita personal income plummeted (one of the worst drops since the 1930s) and the auto manufacturing industry was hollowed out. Faced with this crisis, the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder set a blistering pace enacting free-market ideas. Current legislative leaders should take note.
In their first year together, Snyder, Speaker of the House Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville repealed the much-reviled Michigan Business Tax and killed off the state’s economic development flagship bureaucracy known as the Michigan Economic Growth Authority. They also lifted restrictions on the number of public charter schools, eliminated the item-pricing law that required retailers to tag individual items and banned the use of tenure to protect bad teachers. Finally, they tied revenue sharing to best practices, banned monopolistic union hiring practices, enacted significant collective bargaining reforms and banned the SEIU’s “dues skim” of day care providers.
The Legislature kept up a good pace of reform in 2012, cutting the personal property tax on tools and equipment, banning the use of government resources to collect union dues and, famously, enacting the nation’s 24th right-to-work law.
Since then, Republicans still enjoy a high-water mark of 63 seats in the state House and padded their supermajority in the Senate. Donald J. Trump won Michigan, which had voted for President Barack Obama by more than 9 points in 2012. The conditions are fertile for those who would pursue a bold agenda.
With one-quarter of 2017 now behind us, the Legislature has ambled out of the starting gate. And the legislative proposal most likely to pass this year is a corporate favoritism bill that would let developers capture a large chunk of tax revenue generated on their properties — a bill that doubles down on Granholm’s failed cronyism efforts.
Some Michigan House leaders have said it is the most conservative chamber in recent memory. Voters, however, will judge actions, not intentions. If the 2017-18 term is to be remembered for free-market achievements, legislative leaders must take advantage of the opportunities they have.
There is no shortage of good ideas. The state could repeal the prevailing wage law, which inflates the cost of public works projects by tens of millions of dollars. We should craft a long-term solution for unfunded liabilities in the school employee pension system and fix local government retirement health costs. Michigan should follow Wisconsin’s lead and allow government workers to regularly vote on whether to keep their union representatives. We could give people good jobs in the service industries by eliminating unnecessary, protectionist licensing requirements. Lawmakers in both chambers are discussing meaningful tax relief for families. The state could take big steps toward more government transparency.
It’s time for free-market reformers to act. The runner who is fastest off the block stands the best chance of winning.
March 31, 2017 MichiganVotes weekly roll call report
Senate Bill 242, Transfer state revenue to certain business owners: Passed 32 to 5 in the Senate
To authorize giving up to $250 million of state revenue to certain developers and business owners selected by political appointees on the board of a state Strategic Fund agency. Owners of selected firms would get cash subsidies for up to 10 years equal to half or all of the income tax paid by their employees. The Senate has also passed bills authorizing another $1.8 billion in subsidies for big developers (SB 111 to 115).
Senate Bill 94, Accelerate new vehicle trade-in “sales tax on the difference”: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate
To accelerate the 24-year phase-in of a 2013 law that exempted from sales tax the value of a trade-in when buying a new vehicle. This would save buyers $28.7 million in 2021, which would gradually increase through 2028.
Senate Bill 168, Raise tax on auto insurers to pay for state theft authority: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate
To revise the basis on which auto insurers are assessed (taxed) to support a government auto theft prevention authority, by also applying the assessments to commercial vehicle policies. The expansion could represent a substantial increase. The Senate Fiscal Agency references a 2010 revenue figure of $6.25 million for this entity.
House Bill 4213, Require court order to breathalyze minor who says no: Passed 102 to 6 in the House
To establish that a police officer must get a court order to get a breath test for alcohol from a minor who objects. This is not related to drunk driving or vehicles, but to enforcement of a state law that bans minors from being in possession of alcohol. Recent court cases have suggested that doing this without a court order is unconstitutional.
House Bill 4070, Revise government eminent domain takings details: Passed 76 to 31 in the House
To require state agencies to pay attorney fees and court costs of private real property owners if a "governmental action" results in a loss of value and the department or agency failed to consult guidelines on government takings promulgated by the Attorney General. Also, to apply these rules on "takings" to all state departments, not just the Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, and Transportation departments. Current law defines "governmental actions" for which compensation is required as including certain permit or license denials, restrictive conditions on these and more. The state and federal constitutions requires governments to compensate owners when their property is taken.
House Bill 4317, Allow exception to graduation health education requirement: Passed 61 to 47 in the House
To allow high school students to replace a health education graduation requirement by instead taking a class on the government health and safety regulations on industry and construction, taught by the state agency in charge of enforcing these.
House Bill 4315, Eliminate foreign language from graduation standards: Passed 79 to 29 in the House
To allow a student to get a high school diploma without meeting the current two-credit language requirement by instead taking a computer class or one in “visual or performing arts (with all these in a new category dubbed “21st century skills” by the sponsors of House Bill 4316, which also passed).
SOURCE: MichiganVotes.org, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit http://www.MichiganVotes.org.
It is at risk of underfunding and has barely enough assets
When lawmakers last considered offering new school employees in Michigan only a defined-contribution retiree plan, the system’s administrators said that the newer “hybrid” plan being offered to new employees has fixed the pension system. They are wrong.
The hybrid retirement plan was created during the Granholm administration as part of a larger package of bills that also provided an early retirement incentive to workers. This hybrid plan is just a less generous traditional pension with a small 401(k) benefit added on. The pension portion of the hybrid is a defined-benefit plan where taxpayers are ultimately responsible for ensuring that enough money is saved to pay for benefits.
The hybrid plan is at risk of becoming underfunded. The state is supposed to set aside enough money to pay for the pensions that workers have earned. This prevents the benefits being earned today from being a burden on future taxpayers. But, if policymakers put in less than is required to keep these pensions funded, future taxpayers will be required to step in to make up the difference.
The current hybrid system has only existed since 2010, and although this has been a period of market growth, it barely has enough assets to pay for the pensions its members have earned. Investments are assumed to grow less than the retirement system’s other plans, with a 7 percent expectation instead of 8 percent. This lowers the risk that the plans will be underfunded, but does not eliminate it. Despite strong market gains, and investment returns that have beaten assumptions, the state has only $23,000 more saved than its $177 million in liabilities.
That ought to raise concerns among lawmakers about the viability of this system. There’s not much breathing room if there’s ever a slow year or recession, and the state is supposed to have pensions covered in good times and in bad.
It’s not the first time that the state has created new tiers of benefits. The state started the Member Investment Plan, which provided a cost-of-living adjustment but required employee contributions, a generation ago. The MIP and other older plans have accumulated $26.7 billion in unfunded liabilities. This underfunding has made school employees and retirees the state’s largest creditors.
Pension administrators have held enough money to pay for the value of pensions earned by employees and retirees in only one out of the past 42 years. Based on this history and the facts of the current state of the hybrid system, one should be skeptical that the hybrid plan will remain fully funded.
In addition to all of this, the hybrid plan does not do a particular good job of serving school employees. It takes 10 years to “vest” — legally earn the right to a state-funded pension — and half of all school employees never vest, which means they don’t benefit at all from this expensive and underfunded pension system.
To prevent future underfunding and to put retirement back in the hands of employees, the state should stop offering the hybrid plan to new workers and only offer defined-contribution benefits, which do not get underfunded.
No good reason to complicate or hide information
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in The Detroit News on March 22, 2017.
Hoping to reverse a trend that has put our state in the bottom 10 in academic achievement, Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission issued a broad series of recommendations.
The commission laid down the principle that professional educators should partner with parents. “Michigan must be much more intentional about nurturing parent engagement,” it said in its report. Among its many recommendations, the commission has told the state’s department of education to come up with “user-friendly tools to navigate educational options,” including a parent information website.
School leaders who want to get parents involved have another tool for sure success: Tell them, in a way they can easily grasp, how well schools are doing. Assigning schools letter grades conveys that result clearly. Parents may accept or reject the information, but it’s hard for school leaders to treat parents as full partners if state officials won’t take this simple step of trust.
Days after the report’s release, state Superintendent Brian Whiston and the State Board of Education backtracked from plans, months in the making, to issue schools across the state A-F letter grades. Last year Snyder and the Legislature approved the use of an A-F system but only for schools in Detroit.
In a system where every parent could freely direct education funds to a school or another educational service of their choice, a state-issued school grading system would be redundant at best, intrusive at worst. But in today’s system, heavily regulated and funded by state dollars, offering a simple and transparent grade can be a powerful way to inform parents and encourage schools to get better.
Researchers measured the benefit of Florida’s letter grade system in test scores, observing that “schools facing accountability pressure changed their instructional practices in meaningful ways.” Evidence from New York City similarly found that F schools started to make gains, at least until a new mayor arrived and stopped grading them.
The Mackinac Center long has been a critic of the state’s Top-to-Bottom rankings, which reflect student poverty more than school quality. But the newly proposed system balances a strong emphasis on measuring where a student is now with how much she has learned from one year to the next. Some schools are not only missing the mark; they also fail to do a good job helping the students who start out behind to catch up.
If we can reasonably believe that a new reporting system will identify substandard schools, there’s no good reason to complicate that information or hide it from parents, businesses and other community members who will foot the bill for changes. An early warning system will work most effectively when enough people can hear and recognize the alarm.
Even so, a single letter grade doesn’t lessen the need for a clear and detailed picture of a school. Some people will visit an online dashboard that contains the underlying information, and some will even do additional research.
Something as simple as a letter grade captures people’s attention, sparks a conversation and raises the profile of public education in public debates. Small wonder then that the idea of A-F school grading is attractive outside the Lansing bubble. A 2016 survey found 78 percent of Michigan voters favored letter grades for schools.
It’s encouraging that the governor’s commission wants more schools to seek out partnerships with parents. Children benefit when families and educators are on the same page, and when schools listen to parents and value their input. The more parents are informed and engaged, the more those important conversations will become a priority.
Delay of 106 days results in lawsuit for University of Michigan
Government transparency tools like the Freedom of Information Act are one of the best ways to hold public officials and employees accountable for their actions. But they only work when government agencies respond quickly and efficiently.
In November, Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, generated press with some disparaging comments about then President-elect Donald Trump and those who had voted for him. Curious about the thought process behind those remarks, Michigan Capitol Confidential reporter Derek Draplin submitted a FOIA request to the university for any emails Schlissel had sent between July 1 and Nov. 16, 2016, that included the word “Trump.”
The university said it would take less than three hours to fulfill the request, but still took more than 100 days to send the documents. On March 2, 2017, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed suit to protest the delay.
Mackinac Center Vice President for Legal Affairs Patrick Wright spoke with Michigan Radio about the lawsuit:
"There's no way it could possibly take 100 days to provide four emails," says Wright. "It's beyond the pale."
Wright says the emails that were provided were not "egregiously" embarrassing.
He says the University is wrongly relying on a part of the state's FOIA law that allows a "reasonable" amount of time to comply, after a requester has provided a good faith payment of half the cost of the complying with the FOIA.
Wright says it would be better if state lawmakers were to modify the FOIA law to provide a deadline for "reasonable" amounts of time to comply with requests. Barring that, his group plans to continue filing similar cases to establish case law that will define it.
The Michigan Daily, a campus newspaper for the University of Michigan, also covered the story:
John Mozena, vice president for marketing and communications, expressed how Schissel’s response was problematic.
“In his professional role as head of a public university, President Schlissel took a very public stance against President-Elect Trump and the people who elected him,” Mozena said. “Our CapCon team was interested in learning more about the decision-making process that led to the actions taken by this public university and its employee, and filed the FOIA request accordingly.”
Michigan’s open records law requires government agencies and public institutions such as the University, to respond to requests within five business days. However, through a series of articles in the FOIA that permit and outline circumstances for the deferment of requests, the request kept getting delayed.
Although the documents were eventually sent to the Mackinac Center, the lawsuit continues. Timely responses to transparency requests are paramount for holding government accountable, and excessive delays impede that important work.
Michigan Capitol Confidential: U-M Refuses to Disclose Its President’s Politicking
Michigan Capitol Confidential: Open Records Law: U-M Cashes The Check But Fails To Deliver The Info
Michigan Capitol Confidential: Here’s Who Runs U-M Office that Took 106 Days To Release Four Emails
Yahoo! Finance: Mackinac Center Sues University of Michigan Over Open Records Violation
Michigan Radio: Mackinac Center sues UM over slow FOIA response
Michigan Daily: University sued for delayed compliance with FOIA request
Michigan Review: University Drags Feet on FOIA Request
Campus Reform: UMich sued for stonewalling on FOIA of Trump-related emails
Student Press Law Center: University of Michigan sued after 106 day delay for four emails
WBCK 95.3: University of Michigan Sued by Mackinac Center for Public Policy
WILS 1320: The Capital City Recap
WJR 760 AM: Frank Beckmann
The College Fix: Lawsuit seeks to force U. Michigan to hand over campus president’s emails discussing Trump
Instapundit: Higher Education Bubble Update: U-M Refuses to Disclose Its President’s Politicking
Agencies spending more of state’s K-12 tax dollars
Legislators have been increasingly interested in Michigan’s intermediate school districts. The increasing financial footprint of these agencies calls for greater public oversight.
A bill that got a committee hearing last legislative session would have given local school districts greater freedom to choose which services they want to receive from ISDs. These services typically include special education and career education, as well as back office and transportation support.
Earlier this month, Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, introduced House Bill 4314 to require all Michigan ISDs to hold board elections at the ballot box. Most current ISD boards have been hand-picked by a representative from each of the local districts within the ISD’s territory. But four of the 56 ISDs, using an option under current law, elect their boards by a popular vote.
HB 4314 has some appeal in the Traverse Bay area, where one ISD board member has served for 40 years. A local investment adviser there wants to change how the ISD manages its finances; he has taken the unusual step of trying to contest a seat. Traverse Bay isn’t the only region where the selection process has led to long tenures in office. The five-member Wayne RESA board has more than 110 years of combined service — 22 years for each member, on average.
It isn’t clear whether popular elections of ISD boards would do any good, or if so, how much. Many voters don’t pay attention to local school board races as it is, and even those who do may struggle to find information that distinguishes the candidates. But popular elections of ISD boards just might bring more public input and scrutiny.
Though the benefits of direct, popular elections aren’t clear, what is clear is that ISD boards have been spending a greater share of Michigan’s public education dollars over the past decade or more. In 2005-06, ISDs spent 7 percent of all K-12 dollars statewide. Ten years later, their share of spending reached 9.5 percent. At the current rate of growth, ISDs will spend one of every 10 education dollars next school year.
This trend is also seen in the actual dollars spent by ISDs. In 2015-16, ISDs reported spending $1,168 for each full-time Michigan pupil, a 33 percent increase from 10 years earlier, even after adjusting for inflation. And these figures do not include dollars that ISDs pass through to local school districts, an amount surpassing $1.06 billion last year.
More than 80 percent of the most recently reported $1.62 billion in total ISD operational expenditures paid for employee salaries and benefits. Hiring has far outpaced the growth in student enrollment. In 1993 there were 173 students for every full-time ISD employee in Michigan. Twenty-two years later, the ratio fell to 92-to-1.
As Michigan’s regional education agencies spend more and more tax dollars, legislators have a reasonable case for giving voters a greater say in who is responsible for the pocketbook.
The information belongs to the people
This week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan Press Association and Michigan Coalition for Open Government published an online, searchable database of government workers and their salaries.
It was immensely popular. The Michigan Government Salaries Database almost immediately garnered thousands of views. But many of the people employed by schools, various arms of the state and judges have questioned why we made public information more readily available.
The Mackinac Center and its employees have lots of friends in government, and some even have family members who are part of this database. (We even have a few current employees in there). Still, we side with the taxpayers when it comes to knowing how much is paid to whom, because it is taxpayers who employ government workers.
It's a trade-off. Taxpayers can't opt out of paying these salaries, so government employees can't opt out of disclosure.
We realize the information within our database is already public and obtainable. However, we know first-hand that government can make this data hard to get. And if it was difficult for the Mackinac Center to obtain, just think how hard it is for an average, single taxpayer to access. So, we chose to make this information easily accessible and searchable to all.
We considered the idea of just posting salaries alongside job titles. But in the end we chose to publish names. Why? Because taxpayers don't often know job titles of public employees. What they know best is an actual human being with an actual name who has a tax-funded salary and is a part of the neighborhood or community. What they know is, "He works for the Secretary of State," or, "She works for MDOT, or something," or "He works for the school, I think." Taxpayers aren't going to ask their neighborhood state worker for a business card to figure out a job title.
Another reason we made the names easy to search is so watchdogs – be they reporters, ordinary citizens or policy makers themselves – can uncover shenanigans and scams. We've found several instances of gross pension spiking and "ghost workers" who are doing union work on the taxpayer dime. Having this info buried in inaccessible government databases serves no one but the bad actors. Without actual names to go on, I have no idea how we would have brought these abuses to light.
A third reason we made the names easy to search is to counteract the dozens, maybe hundreds, of news stories of government employees claiming poverty. We have personally debunked dozens of these false, public claims in the mainstream media where journalists were given incorrect information and broadcast it to thousands, reinforcing a harmful and erroneous narrative that stands in the way of reform. With our database, journalists can now easily and quickly fact-check such claims. It serves no public purpose for people to believe that government wages are lower than they really are.
Before creating the database, we did our homework to make sure that in other states where such tools exist, the safety of public employees doesn't seem to be compromised. There is simply no evidence that the same kind of databases in Ohio, California, Nevada, or Illinois have led dangerous people to harm or harass public workers.
The overwhelming trend is for more and more government info to be made universally accessible. It's a factor of technology and related social expectation. In other words, more transparency is coming whether anyone likes it or not and if responsible people don't take charge of it, then irresponsible ones will.
Working with government data often uncovers issues that go beyond whatever you expected to find in the first place, which happened to us here. We began hearing from some state employees that the database was over-reporting their salaries, often significantly. We quickly checked to make sure that the error wasn't on our side, then took portions of the database down regardless to keep bad information from causing confusion.
It turns out that simply asking for state workers' salaries exposed flaws in the state's Office of Retirement Services systems. In their amended FOIA response, they told us that a "technical error" had caused them to give us incorrect information on 4,500 state workers. They've since sent us the numbers they think are correct. But the fact that the state's pension system operator had bad information on worker salaries, and gave it to us in response to a public records request, is a good reason for why it should be easier for people to access that information. It took thousands of people using the database to find the 1.5 percent of records that ORS said it got wrong. What would have happened had we and our partners never made it available to them?
This information is already publicly available and owned by the people. Our database made it more easily available, while uncovering potentially serious administrative issues in an important government office. One of the Mackinac Center’s signature contributions to policy discourse in its 30-year history has been making public data more accessible to everyone, not just politicians and bureaucrats. We will continue to fight for an open, transparent government.