Dead or alive: retirement debate raises questions Legislature's effectiveness


State lawmakers will return next week to negotiations on a plan to encourage thousands of veteran teachers to retire. The plan would help school districts save money as they face big budget challenges. But the Legislature has already plowed through several deadlines to get the job done. And some people say it may already be too late for the plan to help school districts avoid teacher layoffs and cuts to services for students.

Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon stood next to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop in the back cloak room of the state Senate. Both men had their arms crossed and held serious expressions on their faces as they listened to debate between House and Senate negotiators. The huddle capped another long week of discussions over the retirement proposal without a resolution.

Bishop says it's important for the Legislature to continue to try and reach
middle ground on the proposal.

"It would be easy to declare it dead and walk away from it, but we would like to preserve a major reform," he says.

Lawmakers say the reform is necessary to soften the blow of cuts to schools potentially facing big cuts in state aid.

Bishop and the handful of negotiators from both sides of the Capitol have expressed hesitant optimism they will reach consensus on the plan. But lawmakers seem no closer now than they were a week ago, and Democratic and Republican leaders are pointing fingers at the other guys as the source of the problems.

Again, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.

"We oftentimes feel like we're spinning our wheels around here," he says. "But you just have to continue to spin and do what you can to try and find some traction.

"It's a discussion that may or may not be spinning its wheels, but at some point the Legislature needs to recognize that school districts need to get on with business."

That's Brad Biladeau, a lobbyist with the Michigan Association of School Administrators. His group, along with several other school associations, asked lawmakers to complete work on the retirement proposal, or declare the issue dead.

"We've been past our deadline for some time now," he adds.

Officials asked lawmakers to have the retirement proposal completed before May, because school districts have to make budgeting and hiring plans for the fall.

Biladeau says school districts have to complete their budgets by July 1, and he hopes lawmakers can also stick to that self-imposed deadline to complete the state's K-12 budget.

"Unfortunately with the way things have been going with the retirement legislation, that may be unlikely," he says.

"Look it, if it were up to us, we would have met their deadline."

House Speaker Andy Dillon says he understands the frustrations of school administrators and teachers as the debate drags on.

"You know, the sooner the better, but it's really weighing what causes more chaos; a short window of retirement, versus massive cuts to K-12," he says.

House Democrats and Senate Republicans have gone back and forth on the proposal for weeks. There are sticking points for both sides, including who should be allowed to take retirement sweeteners, and what benefits those teachers and employees should receive. And a week of never-ending offers and counter-offers between lawmakers led to the scene in the Senate cloak room.

House Speaker Dillon says timing and personalities have had as much to do with the impasse as disagreements on details of the plan.

"I put a couple offers on the table for him, and he said let us, he used the word percolate, let's let it percolate,' he goes I can't go back to my caucus now, they'll blow up.' So we left there thinking we'd continue to work through the night and that we wouldn't adjourn, we get back to our office and they've adjourned," he explains.

Meanwhile, Senator Bishop says this retirement reform is relatively small in comparison with some of the other proposals on the table to save money in the budget.

"It's very difficult to get anything through this legislature right now," he says.

If that's the case, it could be a very long summer in Lansing.