LANSING (AP) - Sue Taylor loved being a Spanish teacher for 32 years, but she's not sure she'd do it again as she watches the benefits of seniority, untaxed pensions and collective bargaining being stripped away by Republican legislators in Michigan.
"If somebody said, 'My kid is studying to be a teacher,' I might say, 'I'd rethink that,'" said the 59-year-old retiree from Dewitt Township north of Lansing. "I've moved from thinking it was the noble profession to now (being) the beleaguered profession."
Across Michigan, teachers, state government workers, university employees, police and firefighters are struggling to hang onto the protections they've had in the past. Bills have been introduced to end binding arbitration for disputes between first responders and local governments, require all public workers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care costs, limit the issues on which teachers can bargain and make at least some portions of the state right-to-work areas where workers covered by union contracts could choose not to pay union dues.
Although public pensions were exempt from state income taxes, retirees born after 1945 now will see their pensions taxed, something Taylor hadn't expected when she retired on her $24,000 annual pension. Public employees who work in fiscally-troubled school districts or local governments overseen by a financial manager can see their contracts scrapped, something that happened in Pontiac last week when the financial manager received state approval to save money by canceling contract protections for 10 police dispatchers.
Republicans pushing for the changes say they're needed to make government run more efficiently and make schools more accountable for students' success.
They argue that making all public employees pay 4 percent toward their defined benefit pension costs or switching some state workers to health saving accounts in retirement rather than traditional health care coverage is necessary to help the state balance its books. Many argue making Michigan a right-to-work state would lead to more jobs.
State Sen. Mark Jansen, a Republican from Kent County's Gaines Township who heads the Senate Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing Committee, has sponsored a bill that would require all public employees to pay at least a fifth of their health care premiums. His chief of staff, Deborah Drick, said the bill awaiting action in the House after passing the Senate is simply bringing needed changes to public employee benefits.
"In the private sector, employees pay toward their health insurance. . . . In the public sector, too often employees pay very little or nothing," Drick said. "It's not anti-worker at all. It's just trying to level the playing field."
The GOP arguments aren't sitting well with public employee unions, many of which help finance Democratic campaigns.
"Trying to prohibit unions from using public spaces to conduct meetings or trying to threaten teachers they could lose their teaching certificate if they are involved in any organizing activities, that doesn't balance budgets, that's just an attack," said Ray Holman of United Auto Workers Local 6000, which represents nearly 17,000 state government workers. "We see a pattern of this across the country. It's beyond balancing budgets. It's about political power."
Thousands of public employees have protested at the Capitol in recent months, carrying signs calling for the recall of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and objecting to public education cuts, taxes on public pensions and bills they see as anti-worker. Although the protests haven't risen to the level of clashes between public workers and Gov. Scott Walker that rocked Wisconsin earlier this year, Michigan government and education employees are angry and worried.
"I'm tired about politics being about broken promises," said Taylor, who signed a petition last week to put a Snyder recall on the November ballot. "I don't think his idea of shared sacrifice aligns with mine."
The governor, a former computer company executive and venture capitalist, meets often with union leaders and says he isn't out to take away unions' collective bargaining rights.
"This is not Wisconsin," Snyder told hundreds of Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council union members in March.
But union leaders are skeptical, especially after watching Snyder push through the financial manager law and budget cuts to state departments, school districts, universities and local governments that could lead to layoffs.
"There's over 45 bad bills (in the Legislature) that essentially come after collective bargaining rights," Holman said. "Even though the governor's not saying Michigan should be a right-to-work state, essentially when you combine these bills with the emergency manager legislation that passed, you don't need to be a right-to-work state because they've taken away so many collective bargaining rights."