Friday, February 11, 2011

What Constitution? House Republicans, Snyder Administration Signal Intent to Ignore the Law

The legal battle over the fate of the public employee starts now:

A showdown is developing between Gov. Rick Snyder and the Civil Service Commission after Snyder officials said Thursday they will not comply with an order the commission issued affecting the pay of about 14,000 nonunion employees.

"It sounds like it's going to be a turf war," commission Chairman Thomas "Mac" Wardrop said.

The commission voted 4-0 Wednesday to stop deducting 3 percent from the paychecks of the state's nonunion employees to pay for state employee retiree health care benefits.

More than a simple turf war, it sounds as if the Republicans and the Snyder administration intend to run roughshod over the law until someone stops them. Power of the Constitution be damned, we will just ignore this ruling and force a court fight over the matter, which will certainly help to set the stage for future battles over public employee compensation to come.

The Michigan Civil Service Commission was created by the Constitution of 1908. I'm going to go out on a limb here and presume that the intent was to put a firewall between elected officials and state employees to prevent abuse on both sides.

There is hereby created a non-salaried civil service commission to consist of 4 persons, not more than 2 of whom shall be members of the same political party, appointed by the governor for 8-year, overlapping terms, the 4 original appointments to be for 2, 4, 6, and 8 years respectively. This commission shall supersede all existing state personnel agencies and succeed to their appropriations, records, supplies, equipment, and other property.

The commission shall classify all positions in the state civil service according to their respective duties and responsibilities, fix rates of compensation for all classes of positions, approve or disapprove disbursements for all personal services, determine by competitive performance exclusively on the basis of merit, efficiency and fitness the qualifications of all candidates for positions in the state civil service, make rules and regulations covering all personnel transactions, and regulate all conditions of employment in the state civil service who has not been certified as so qualified for such appointment or promotion by the commission. No removals from or demotions in the state civil service shall be made for partisan, racial, or religious considerations.

Shorter version: State employees or agencies can't filch from the till when it comes to pay or other tangible goods, and the governor and/or legislature can't use them as pawns in political battles, or practice cronyism on qualifications or compensation. Fair enough. The Constitution of 1963 basically repeats the initial power of the MCSC and expands the detail to include binding arbitration and other specifics such as annual reports and grievance procedures. When it comes to rates of compensation:

Increases in rates of compensation authorized by the commission may be effective only at the start of a fiscal year and shall require prior notice to the governor, who shall transmit such increases to the legislature as part of his budget. The legislature may, by a majority vote of the members elected to and serving in each house, waive the notice and permit increases in rates of compensation to be effective at a time other than the start of a fiscal year. Within 60 calendar days following such transmission, the legislature may, by a two-thirds vote of the members elected to and serving in each house, reject or reduce increases in rates of compensation authorized by the commission. Any reduction ordered by the legislature shall apply uniformly to all classes of employees affected by the increases and shall not adjust pay differentials already established by the civil service commission. The legislature may not reduce rates of compensation below those in effect at the time of the transmission of increases authorized by the commission.

Get two-thirds, and its gone. Again, fair enough. But that's where the fun begins and the hissy fits start. Yesterday's ruling overturns the budget agreement from last year that stated non-union employees would contribute 3% towards retiree health care. I'm guessing they probably knew it would be an issue when they did it, but at that point it was find-the-money-and-get-out-of-Dodge before the place devolved into thrown objects and fist fights, so it was passed and signed and counted towards the bottom line. The commission ruled that was a no-no, but oops, too bad, they're gone, now it's up to the obstructionists to fix the mess they created by being stubborn in the first place.

Now, the language above is pretty clear on the power of the MCSC, which means at this point the Republicans are forced to reach into the Big Pot 'o Hyperbole and characterize these entirely legal actions as an affront to whatever talking point they are parroting this week/month/year.

The administration announced it would continue making the deductions hours after House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, urged it to take that position to stop what he called an irresponsible spending spree by the Civil Service Commission.

Two weeks ago, the commission angered many legislators by extending health care benefits to the same-sex partners and other unrelated housemates of state employees, again over the objections of the administration.

"Spending" is the big bad buzzword, so "spending" it shall be labeled to suit Republican interests - and the administration will now use it as justification for ignoring the Constitution.

"(House Speaker Jase Bolger) feels they have thumbed their nose at state law, with no regard as to the impact the decision is going to have in terms of fiscal cost, in terms of the legal question the (DTMB) is in," (Ari Adler, spokesman for Bolger) said. "The department is now in the middle of this. They have a Civil Service Commission ruling, and they have a state law to follow. ... We think they should follow state law."

But commission members say the commission clearly has the constitutional authority to set compensation levels for nonunion employees, and that the Legislature acted improperly last year.

"Mr. Bolger ought to tread lightly on the ruling of the Civil Service Commission," said commission member Andrew Abood, who introduced Wednesday's measure to end the contributions. "Clearly, we are on sound footing here. The constitution provides for what we did. It didn't support what (the Legislature) did."

Interestingly enough, the "irresponsible spending spree" suddenly stopped when it came to raises for these same employees; they had asked for 3% to match the raise that some union employees received last year, the commission said "no". So, there's that. Doesn't matter though, the commission has angered the quest of the all-powerful, and now any sense of fairness or cooperation will go right out the window. Adler told the LSJ they are "exploring other ways to nullify or reverse the commission ruling", perhaps even asking AG Schuette to look into the matter - signaling they are willing to go for the big guns to get what they want.

(EDIT 4:15PM - Not to be taken literally, like they did in Wisconsin)

Bolger did one better for MIRS - he suggested they just start abolishing those parts of the Constitution that get in the way.

"An agitated House Speaker Jase BOLGER (R-Marshall) said this morning that if the two recent actions by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) can't be overturned, he would support disbanding the constitutionally required body."

Amazing how we have gone from the spirit of compromise to shredding the Constitution so darn quick, isn't it? But really, did you expect anything different?

This is only the beginning. Good luck, state employees. As a famous movie robot once said: "I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies".