Special Report: Are You Paying for Perks?

By: Tony Tagliavia Email
By: Tony Tagliavia Email

Money for food, money for an apartment -- money for whatever they want. Michigan lawmakers get a $12,000 a year stipend.

All they need to do is ask for it.

"They do not need to turn in receipts," Secretary of the Senate Carol Viventi told News 10.

And the stipend comes on top of legislators' annual salary of $79,650. Lawmakers can also get reimbursed for one round trip a week from their front door to a reserved parking space at the Capitol.

"They have to give us the day and they day they drove back," Viventi said.

Viventi is one of the first people new senators meet, so we asked her to show us around the Capitol and explain the benefits legislators get. So what's the explanation for that $12,000 stipend?

"It's because they have to eat away from home, live away from home," she said. Some live six or eight hours from the Capitol and spend much or all of Mondays and Fridays driving back and forth.

The lawmakers, we should mention, don't set their own pay. The governor appoints a commission that sets it. Representatives and senators then vote on any change in compensation.

Healthcare is also part of that deal. For now, representatives and senators get healthcare for life after age 55 if they put in six years' service or more. (Two proposals currently being considered would end that benefit immediately or in the near future.) There are insurance co-payments, but while in office they don't pay premiums.

Neither do most legislative staffers. Legislators get money to pay for those staffers and their offices too. On the House side, representatives get close to $100,000 for staff and office expenses.

In the Senate, each Republican gets roughly $280,000 in office expenses. Democrats, as the minority party, get just under $200,000 each. Majority senators get more in part because they have to staff committees.

Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) says the state could save a little by evening out what Democrats and Republicans get.

She says living so close to the Capitol she doesn't take advantage of the mileage reimbursement, but she says good representation requires a sizable office budget and the staff to go with it.

"We can get 100 emails in five minutes," Whitmer said. "And we need to respond to all of them."

So how does it all add up?

The total cost of the Michigan legislature, including salaries, benefits and even nonpartisan staff that helps figure out the budget, is around $115 million.

That breaks down to more than $750,000 for every representative and senator in the state.

But "in terms of the total $42 billion budget, it's a small drop in the bucket," said Greg Bird, the governor's budget spokesman.

In fact, eliminating the legislature wouldn't even clear up the deficit in this year's budget. So Bird says the legislature hasn't been a target for cuts.

But the state is looking to trim expenses, and Whitmer says a legislative pay cut could be a symbolic good step.

"We could voluntarily do it," she said. "That's easy enough to do."

Such a move could put Michigan closer in line with neighboring states with full-time legislatures.

Compared to Michigan's nearly $80,000 a year salary, Illinois lawmakers make about $58,000 a year according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In, Wisconsin legislators earn about $47,000. In Ohio, it's roughly $59,000 and they don't get a stipend like Michigan's lawmakers do.

The only state lawmakers with higher salaries are in California. And don't forget, people like House Speaker Andy Dillon and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop get more than $25,000 extra apiece for their leadership roles.

As those leaders look for cuts, legislative pay and benefits haven't yet been publicly targeted.

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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Dennis on May 22, 2007 at 02:35 AM
    Tally up the health care costs for current and past legislators and I think you will be amazed at what it is costing us. Is this health care benefit extended to their families also?
  • by Ann Larr Location: Ludington, MI on May 5, 2007 at 08:03 AM
    I was doing research this morning on this very topic. I couldn't find out what the current wages of legislators were until I found your article! But one thing I did find out that your article doesn't mention is how many days our legislature is in session each year.... 90 days!!!! That has been the average throughtout the nineties. Now I realize there is a lot of work done outside chambers but I highly doubt it would total the 2080 hours(and that's no overtime)worked by the rest of us. That just underlines the ridiculus waste of money up top.
  • by Pia Location: Ludington on May 4, 2007 at 08:20 AM
    Why would voting out the current legislators make a difference? Would't the new ones make the same amount of pay and be entitled to the same benefits? I agree that they earn too much for too little, but I really don't see how electing new Senators and Reps is going to help change that ...in fact, you are just adding more potential health care costs every time you add a new person to that club.
  • by Donna Location: Grand Rapids on May 4, 2007 at 06:45 AM
    So, what we need to do, is never re-elect Senators/Reps?
  • by Sue Location: Houghton Lake on May 3, 2007 at 07:52 AM
    and we are cutting schools and medicare !!!
  • by Rebecca Location: Vermontville on May 3, 2007 at 07:04 AM
    With everyone else facing budget cuts & reduction in benefits, what is going on?? Why aren't the cuts starting at the top, why when MI is losing jobs to numerous to count are the politicians earning more than every state except CA?? Why do I have to live with less & the people who work for me don't have to???
  • by william Location: Webberville on May 2, 2007 at 03:54 PM
    We are all concerned about balancing the budget. Each paerson, regardless of party has been elected to act on behalf of the citizens. Now is the time for each you to work TOGETHER ON BEHALF OF WHAT IS BEST FOR THE CITIZEN. As you look for increased revenue taxes raise the funds. Put put on a sales tax which each individual pays regardless of his business, salary. quit trying to devise ways to get income with sin tax, use tax, and multiply other taxes. Sales tax is the fairest. If you look at other states with a higher sales tax their property tax and business taxes are less. Then set your budgets to reflect the income from the previous year not projection on what might happen. Provide jobs for people so they might earn a living. We need no more free gov't giveto the poor etc programs. Each person needs to accept responsibility for the rights they have been given.
  • by Holly Location: Mt. Morris, Michigan on May 2, 2007 at 09:05 AM
    I think that if all these lawmakers would give that $12,000 to either those who are homeless, or to those that don't have any medical insurance, alot of our homeless wouldn't be homeless, and our uninsured wouldn't be uninsured. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how much money is being wasted in our government. God save our state!!!
  • by Josh Location: Webberville on May 2, 2007 at 05:12 AM
    I think it is wrong for law makers to not feel the pinch like the rest of us. The people of Michigan are hurting and more and more people are leaving our great state. I think triming the legislature is a better move than screwing the schools over all of the time. I work for a school and we are hurting. They (the legislature) should start feeling the pinch with the rest of us, and stop getting a free ride.
  • by Michelle Location: Lansing on May 1, 2007 at 04:39 PM
    The article doesn't even mention the various perks given to the legislators by lobbyists. I suppose that's a whole other can of worms.
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