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Eyeball to eyeball

Jun 6, 2017

There’s a legend that Secretary of State Dean Rusk summed up what happened in the Cuban Missile Crisis by saying, “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Well, things were considerably more complicated than that.

But right now the governor and the legislature are eyeball to eyeball over the future of teacher pensions in this state, and it isn’t clear who’ll be blinking.

Put another way, it isn’t clear whether the governor will finally muster the guts to refuse to sign off on something he knows is bad policy on so many levels.

Actually, this is mainly a showdown between Governor Snyder and Arlan Meekhof, the majority leader in the state senate. Meekhof seems to have it in for public school teachers. Republicans have long hated the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Federation of Teachers. That’s somewhat understandable, since those unions have a history of contributing campaign funds to Democratic candidates and liberal causes.

But in a world where education is more critical than ever, attacking teachers themselves is baffling. What’s even more baffling is that Meekhof, who sent his children to private schools, is insisting on something that is both bad for teachers, and makes no common sense.

Michigan teachers used to have a generous defined benefit pension, and those of us who know how hard they worked think most deserved it.

But in recent years, that’s been replaced by a hybrid that combines a reduced pension with a 401(k) benefit plan. This plan is fully funded and completely solvent.

Getting rid of it, on the other hand, would cost the state hundreds of millions immediately, and billions over the next few years. Exactly how much is in dispute, but last year, the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency estimated a similar attempt to get rid of the last vestiges of teacher pensions would cost taxpayers almost $4 billion over the next five years.

Now it is true that Michigan has an estimated $29 billion in unfunded liabilities related to the earlier, full-service pension plan. Something does need to be done about that.

But we are comparing grapes and grapefruit here. Once again, Meekhof and his allies want to replace a current fully funded pension plan with one that would be less good and cost taxpayers more.

Besides the sheer spiteful irrationality, consider this:

Michigan desperately needs the best teachers possible to inspire students, nearly all of whom now need some form of higher education. But Michigan is making teaching a less and less desirable occupation. We are paying teachers less, and cutting their benefits.

Gretchen Whitmer, a Democratic candidate for governor, is both the daughter and granddaughter of teachers. But when her own daughter told her recently that she wanted to be a teacher, Whitmer reacted with “a mixture of pride and concern.”

The night before, she’d been told that a first-year teacher in Alpena with one child qualified for food stamps. “Who is going to go into teaching?” she asked.

After all, why would they? What’s fascinating is that in a gesture of contempt for his fellow Republican governor, Meekhof says he will refuse to negotiate, and if the governor doesn’t give in to his demands, there won’t be a budget.

What finally happens may show us exactly what Rick Snyder is made of.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.