Why Mich. has largest U.S. legislative turnover

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and Sen. Jim Marleau, R-Lake Orion, are among 25 state Senators who could not seek re-election this year due to term limits.

Lansing — The Michigan Senate will see more turnover than any legislative chamber in America next year because of a term-limit law that prevented 25 of 38 members from competing for re-election this month.

The amendment to the Michigan Constitution, approved by 59 percent of voters in 1992, will force a 66 percent turnover in the Senate next session. That’s by far the highest rate among the 15 states with similar laws, according to an analysis by Ballotpedia.

The second-ranked Colorado Senate will lose 41 percent of members to term limits.

“We are renewing our experiment in democracy when we get new faces in the Legislature, and that’s certainly going to happen this upcoming January,” said Patrick Anderson, an East Lansing-based economist and consultant who wrote part of the constitutional amendment.

Eight current Michigan senators will return next year to the upper chamber, which will also be reshaped by four incumbent election losses and one resignation. Of the 30 new members, 23 have previously served in the House, and seven have never served in state government.

Senators forced out by term limits had served a combined 286 years in the state Legislature, including previous service in the House.

“I think there will be a new energy, and that brings new ideas,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, one of two Senate Democrats who will return next session. He is poised to serve as minority vice chair on the powerful appropriations committee.

With Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer taking office but Republicans retaining legislative majorities, “it’s going to be interesting times, but I think it will be good for Michigan,” Hertel said, noting he is "not a big fan" of term limits but is excited about incoming colleagues.

“Obviously, there’s a learning curve when you get into the Senate, but I think these are really good, smart people who will bring more everyday life experience.”

How Michigan's limits compare

Michigan’s legislative term limits are considered among the strictest in the country. Lawmakers can serve up to six years in the state House if they win election to three two-year terms, and up to eight years in the Senate if they win two four-year terms.

The 14-year cap on total lifetime service in the Michigan Legislature is more generous than 12-year limits in California and Oklahoma, but laws in those states are more flexible and allow lawmakers to serve their full tenure in a single chamber. Nine states have limits on consecutive terms, but no lifetime cap. 

In the Michigan House, 24 out of 110 lawmakers were prohibited from seeking re-election, including 13 Democrats and 11 Republicans. House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt is out, as is House Minority Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing.  

Fourteen other House members won election to the state Senate. And one term-limited state senator — Democrat Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor — won election to the state House, where she'll serve her third and final two-year term.

Of the 25 lawmakers who could not seek re-election to the state Senate, six are Democrats and 19 are Republicans. They include Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive, who has called the term limits law a “failed social experiment.”

Meekhof has argued for flexibility in the legislative limits, suggesting current rules discourage long-term planning and prudent decision making at the state Capitol, but he does not intend to push any reform legislation before he is forced out, according to his office.

Reforming term limits

The influential Michigan Chamber of Commerce had considered initiating a constitutional amendment to revise term limits, but the chamber board voted in January to defer any action on the issue to instead focus on supporting candidates that align with its agenda and opposing other ballot proposals.

"We may look at that question again some time later next year," said Chamber President and CEO Rich Studley. "Currently, I think most of our members are still celebrating that the elections are over."

Studley said most of his concerns with the current term limits law revolve around the House, which members typically enter with no legislative experience and have little time to learn the ropes -- let alone complex issues like energy policy -- before preparing for their next election. 

Some turnover is good, Studly opined. But he said "sometimes the challenge for newly elected lawmakers, even if they've had some local government experience, is just the size and the scale and the complexity" of state government, which has 50,000 employees serving 10 million residents.

One of the reasons voters approved term limits is to “ensure that periodically we’re refreshing both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s house,” term limits supporter Anderson said.

While he’s open to a public discussion about the policy, Anderson argues most of the complaints about the Michigan law emanate from an “echo chamber” around the state Capitol and in the university towns of East Lansing and Ann Arbor.

Senate changes

Democrats flipped five seats in the state Senate, along with five in the House. But Republicans are “happy to be able to keep our majority,” Meekhof said, referencing the 22-16 advantage.  

“We worked really hard on that, (and it was) very difficult to see a couple members not returning, some open seats not captured. But we’re still a majority and we are the adult side of the equation here.”

Sen. Mike Shirkey of Clarklake, who will replace Meekhof as majority leader, is one of six Republicans who will return next session. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, will join Hertel as the lone Democrats who served one full and are returning for a second.

The slimmer majority for Senate Republicans, who currently hold 27 of 38 seats, makes it a “little more challenging” to give bills immediate effect, which requires a two-thirds vote, but is unlikely to radically change the dynamics, Shirkey said.

“We have a very tight caucus,” he added. “This was a very intense refining process through this election.”

Republican Sens. Marty Knollenberg of Troy and Margaret O’Brien of Portage lost in the general election. Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, lost in the primary, and Sen. Ian Conyers, D-Detroit, did not seek re-election and instead lost his bid for the U.S. House.

Former state Sen. Bert Johnson’s seat has been open since he resigned in March after he was sentenced in a “ghost employee” case. Sen.-elect Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, was sworn in Nov. 10 and will get a two-month jump start on other freshmen as he completes the current term.

Freshman lawmakers in both chambers participate in various orientation exercises, where they learn legislative procedures, information about office budgets and details about the $58 billion state budget they’ll help oversee.

“I think most people have a basic understanding of the 'School House Rocks' video for how to introduce a bill on Capitol Hill, but it’s obviously a little more complicated than that,” Hertel said.

He had not served in the House before winning election to the Senate four years ago but had spent years working in and around state government and the Legislature, where his father had also served as House speaker.

“There were still a lot of things to learn when I got in," Hertel said, "but there are some great training opportunities for new members.”


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