The Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the state has to refund more than half a billion dollars improperly taken from the state’s teachers.
That has to be an extremely welcome holiday present for Michigan’s beleaguered teachers, who for years have felt under siege from politicians who have weakened their unions, their pensions, and made them pay more for health care.
This should also be a political gift to the Democrats, who have in recent years become the party of choice for the state’s teachers, especially since Republicans in the legislature often seem to have declared war on teachers as a class.
But instead, it looks like a political win for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who started out being against the teachers, flipped, and yesterday praised the high court for making what he called “the right decision for teachers in this case.”
And as is too often the case, former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer was nowhere to be seen.
Here’s what happened: Seven years ago, while Democrat Jennifer Granholm was still governor, the legislature passed a law confiscating three percent of the salaries of teachers and other school employees, and put it into a fund for their retirement benefits.
Teachers’ unions immediately sued, arguing that this was a violation of their contracts, and in time, the courts not only agreed that it was a violation, but an unconstitutional breach of contract. The state stopped seizing the money after 2012. Now, courts at all levels have long held that when money or property is taken unconstitutionally it has to be restored without delay.
But the Snyder administration refused to give it back, and said that since a new law asking teachers to make voluntary contributions had been enacted in 2012, the state should be able to keep the money seized under the old unconstitutional law.
Bill Schuette even defended that position, and argued on the states’ behalf before the Michigan Court of Appeals. Then, a year and a half ago, the appeals court said in no uncertain terms: Give the money back. Schuette then told Governor Rick Snyder he was on his own. Schuette knew he was going to run for governor, and knew the one thing he didn’t need was a humiliating loss that would make him look anti-teacher.
Snyder should have then accepted the decision and given the money back. But instead, he spent hundreds of thousands of the state’s money on outside counsel, only to lose unanimously in the Supreme Court, many of whose members he’d appointed.
Sure enough, once the decision was announced, a spokesperson for Schuette was saying “this Granholm-era money grab is now over,” and that he “strongly agrees the Michigan Supreme Court made the right decision for teachers.”
Never mind that the unconstitutional law was passed by a Republican state senate, or that Schuette himself defended it for a long time. Strategically, this was brilliant.
But what is baffling is – where is Gretchen Whitmer, who has been a defender of teachers for years? Politically, she should have been out there proclaiming before the decision that this was wrong and the money needed to be returned. But I have seen no mention of her in any news story on the ruling. If this doesn’t worry senior Democratic strategists, I’d be surprised.
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.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Following publication of this essay, we were contacted by the Whitmer campaign. The campaign took issue with Jack's characterization of Gretchen Whitmer being "nowhere to be seen" following the ruling. The campaign interpreted that to mean "nowhere on the issue." While Jack does state that Whitmer "has been a defender of teachers for years" - the campaign believes Jack has misrepresented her position since Whitmer voted against the legislation, and in the past urged the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the teachers.
Jack's point, however, was that Whitmer missed an opportunity to remind voters of that herself after the ruling. Instead, it was her opponent, Bill Schuette, an Attorney General who fought against this outcome in the past, who stole the limelight for the day.
Whitmer did release a statement yesterday following the ruling. It is below in its entirety.
"This is a win for the hardworking women and men who dedicate their lives to preparing our kids to succeed," said Whitmer. "Once again, Michiganders have proven that when we show up for one another's fights, we can't be ignored. Our educators need someone who is in their corner fighting for them. I’m proud to have stood with educators when they demanded their 3% be returned, and I’ll continue working with anyone who wants to repair Michigan’s broken education system.”
Jack's point in the essay, is that because of Whitmer's long support of educators, she missed an easy opportunity to take a very public victory lap after this ruling. She did not, and Schuette rose to fill the vacuum.