Shirkey set to pitch ballot initiative in 2021 challenging term limits

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, listens to a discussion on Michigan's future at the annual Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce's  Mackinac Policy Conference Thursday.

Mackinac Island — Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said he plans to challenge the state’s term limits for legislators through a ballot initiative in 2021.

The Clarklake Republican announced the plan Thursday during a panel at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference after all four of the legislative leaders said they didn’t think Michigan's strictest-in-the-nation term limits were working.

“There’s no middle ground here,” Shirkey said. “You either have term limits or you don’t. We have natural term limits. They’re called two-year and four-year election cycles.”

With the elimination of post-career incentives, the need for term limits is no longer relevant, he said. Shirkey is planning the ballot initiative for 2021, toward the end of his final four-year term, so he can't be accused of benefiting from his own proposal.

“I think it’s time that we test that message and we’ll see if the citizens of Michigan buy it or not,” Shirkey said. 

Under the constitutional amendment initiative approved by voters in 1992, Michigan residents are limited to serving up to three two-year terms in the state House and two four-year terms in the state Senate.

Patrick Anderson, an East Lansing economist who wrote the 1992 ballot  language, estimated any ballot initiative would be "rejected roundly" by Michigan voters. Roughly 400,000 residents signed the petition for term limits, Anderson said, and it passed with 59% of the vote even though the group was outspent 2-1. 

"There must be something in the ice cream up on Mackinac Island," Anderson said. "When politicians and business leaders gather there, discussions about overturning the Constitution run rife.”

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has been supportive of revising but retaining term limits in Michigan because of the roadblocks they place on lawmakers from gaining the knowledge and experience they need to effect sound policy, said chamber president Rich Studley.

“For better or worse, we have succeeded in institutionalizing inexperience,” Studley said.

But Studley said a lot has changed since the issue was last on the front burner and the chamber would have to consult its membership before endorsing Shirkey’s initiative.

Before heading to the ballot box, the issue may be resolved through the redistricting case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In April, a federal district court panel ordered Michigan officials to redraw at least 34 congressional and legislative districts for the 2020 election cycle and hold special elections two years early for the state Senate.

The order would carry special significance for senators like Shirkey who have already been elected to a maximum two terms and potentially would be ineligible to run for their seats again if their districts are redrawn and their current four-year terms are cut short.

The pending case presents a “giant wild card” and could have implications on Michigan’s term limit laws, Studley said.

“Is this a legal question that will be resolved by the courts or will it be something that goes to voters?” he said.

While leaders stopped short of supporting Shirkey’s plan, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich agreed that term limits restrict lawmakers' ability to take adequate time on meaningful legislation to ensure it is working as it should.

“We pass things and we act like we’re just done, like looking back at things is somehow an admission of guilt,” the Flint Democrat said.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, now in his fifth year in the Legislature, admitted he’s still beginning to understand the complexities of many issues and “half the work we do in the Legislature is fixing bills that we voted on the previous year.” Lawmakers are being asked to come up to speed on complex issue in a very short time frame, the Levering Republican said. 

“Every single person sitting out there who’s a freshman legislator right now feels like they’ve been drinking water from a fire hose these last five months and they just voted on the biggest piece of legislation that has been voted on in our chamber arguably in 20 years,” Chatfield said, referring to the no-fault auto insurance reform law. “That is a problem.”

But Chatfield cautioned that a ballot initiative to overturn term limits would go down "faster than a 45-cent gas tax" unless it was paired with education and other important reforms. 

"They need to know that those who are currently serving don’t benefit from it and that’s going to be a key component of it," he said. 

House Minority Leader Christine Greig noted that Voters Not Politicians, the citizen-led group that last year successfully helped pass a voter-approved constitutional initiative for an independent citizens redistricting commission, held town halls after the election and concluded the next major challenge for Michigan was changing term limits. 

"If it's driven by citizens, I think it's so powerful," the Farmington Hills Democrat said.

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