Commentary
12:09 pm
Fri October 7, 2011

Shared Sacrifice? Not So Much

When your local state legislator campaigns for reelection next time, or runs for some other office, they may remind you of how they helped save the state by gallantly giving up their retirement health care benefits.

When and if they do, you might want to remember that this is mostly a form of horse exhaust. With a very few exceptions, they didn’t vote to give up their benefits at all.

They voted to deny benefits to other people who haven’t been elected yet, and who could theoretically change the law back.

As for our current band of elected leaders - they are mostly keeping their benefits, thank you very much.

Here’s what’s really going on. Retired Michigan legislators have, in fact, been getting taxpayer-subsidized health care benefits since the nineteen-fifties. By the way, it was a solidly Republican legislature that first voted to do this. Contrary to some propaganda you may have been hearing, the benefits aren’t completely free, and they don‘t kick in till the ex-lawmakers reach age fifty-five.

Nor is this quite as expensive as Medicare. There about three times as many living retired lawmakers as there are sitting ones - about three hundred and fifty people. Their medical and dental benefits cost the state about five point three million dollars a year.

But any amount is too much for those against any kind of taxpayer-funded health care. And, thanks to term limits, the number of ex-legislators is now increasing faster than ever before.

At some point, It dawned on the Republicans that it would be a trifle tricky to keep denouncing what they call “Obamacare” while keeping a better deal for themselves.

So earlier this year, the Michigan House of Representatives eliminated retiree health care benefits for nearly all sitting lawmakers. That bill went to the state senate.

But the senators then said, “hold on, little brothers. It may be politically popular to end benefits for politicians.

“But frankly, we want to keep ours.”  So the senate passed a different bill that would eliminate health care coverage for retired legislators - except for those who had enough years to qualify by New Year’s Day, 2013. That means that all but two senators get to keep lifetime benefits.

Now, that’s what I call shared sacrifice - making future generations pay, so you don’t have to sacrifice. They took their version of the bill over to the House, which happily agreed to substitute it for their own.

The governor’s spokesman said he will sign it. How did the senators justify keeping benefits for themselves? Here‘s what Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said: “We’re not going to retroactively take things away from people that they’ve earned and was part of the package that they signed up for.“

That sounds gallant, though the senator doesn’t seem to have a problem taking away things that teachers and state employees signed up for. The only senator I heard who didn’t sound like a hypocrite was Detroit’s Coleman Young. “If you are going to wipe out retirement health care, wipe it out for everyone,” he said.

But that’s not how the game is played.

By the way, if you ever wondered what future generations will think of us, stop wondering. I think the answer is painfully clear.