State Legislators Take Care of Themselves

Even from the grave

Members of the political class here and elsewhere have a reputation for always taking care of their own. Chasers of public office may wax eloquent about their selfless “public service,” but the truth is that no one checks their self-interest at the doors of the Capitol.

Elected officials maximize their own interests in a number of ways: pay, prestige, perquisites and more. Under term limits, perhaps the highest priority of the political careerists who populate the Legislature is paving the way for their next elected or appointed job when they are termed-out of their current one. Toward this end, they are often willing to demonstrate loyalty to the system by glorifying it along with their current and former colleagues.

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For example, House Bill 5843 would create a “Legislative Funeral Act” to require the state of Michigan (that is, taxpayers) give a state flag to the survivor of current or former state legislators who die.

Michigan state lawmakers are already some of the best paid in America and can easily buy their own flag. That’s not the real point of the bill, however. Rather, it is to puff up the importance of the statewide political elite to which they currently belong, in pursuit of remaining a member even after they are termed-out of their current slot.

The bad news with this bill is that it actually has 61 sponsors. The good news is that while it is modeled on a similar measure introduced in 2009, unlike that proposal this one does not require that taxpayers pay for a State Police escort for the funeral processions of current and former legislators. Both bills featured a large number of co-sponsors from both parties. (One of the earlier bill’s freshman co-sponsors publicly apologized for his rookie error in political judgment.)

The “Legislative Funeral Act” measures are hardly the only bills introduced by Lansing politicians to immortalize their own. Former state lawmakers Dominic Jacobetti and Harry Gast have stretches of roads named after them. Former Sen. Glen Steil Sr. (father of former Rep. Glen Steil Jr.) has a law named for him, and the name of a former higher education appropriations chairman, the late Rep. Morris Hood Jr., decorates an education-related program.

In 2012, state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer offered an amendment to Senate Bill 534 which would rename the proposed law the “John J. Gleason gift of life plate” after the very politician who introduced the law in the first place. The amendment and law were both adopted.

The attempts to glorify a current or recent legislator don’t always fly, such as one state senator’s amendment to name a property-rights infringing business and restaurant smoking ban after a current colleague, Sen. Ray Basham, which failed by voice vote. Nor does it matter that most Michigan residents will never recognize the former politician names attached to roads, buildings, programs, laws, etc. As mentioned, these measures are about serving a state and local political system to which these political careerists are desperate to remain attached, and have little to do with the general public.

The dignity of that system — such as it is — may need some institutional guardrails against the self-serving excesses of its members. At the very least a politician should have to be dead before former colleagues start naming things after him or her. Preferably for a good long time, like say 50 years. Only with the fullness of time can the people and elected officials acquire some needed perspective on the real value of a particular politician’s contributions. 

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