Mackinac survey: 43% favor part-time legislature

Melissa Nann Burke, and Chad Livengood

Mackinac Island — Nearly 43 percent of Republican activists polled at this weekend’s Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference said they would support a constitutional amendment to create a part-time legislature, end term limits, and slash legislative pay.

About 40 percent of participants objected to the proposal, and 17 percent were undecided in the straw poll sponsored by The Detroit News and MIRS; 782 registered conference attendees participated.

Responding to a question about legalizing recreational marijuana, 58 percent of participants voted against the idea. Nearly 34 percent would approve of legalizing pot, and 8 percent were undecided.

Two groups are collecting signatures to put the issue before voters next year in a bid to have Michigan join other states defying federal laws against cultivating, selling and consuming marijuana.

Michigan is among 10 states with either a full-time or nearly full-time legislature with lawmakers that devote at least 80 percent of their time to the legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Efforts to make the Legislature part-time have failed in the past, including ballot campaigns in 2008 and 2014 that fizzled before reaching a statewide vote. The change requires amending the state Constitution.

Skeptics worry that the change would tip the balance of power to bureaucrats within the executive branch, or that citizen legislators would face conflicts of interest working other jobs.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley would support a part-time legislature if it were structured properly and not in such a way that would render the Legislature too weak, he said.

“Details matter a lot,” said Calley, who served two terms in the state House. “The most important consideration is that you maintain the balance of power between three branches of government.”

Calley noted that other states have successfully implemented part-time systems, and that Michigan could learn from their experiences.

“This is the sort of thing that, reviewing or studying and researching what works well around the country would be a good first step, rather than just jumping in with something that’s not planned,” he said.

Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema’s sense is that most Michiganians not involved in politics would like to see a part-time legislature — a development that would lead to fewer laws, fewer regulations, and fewer taxes, he said.

He’d also like to see term limits extended by four years and staggered between the state House and the Senate. The current voter-imposed limits hold House members to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms. Critics say those limits aren’t long enough for a lawmaker to learn the job and the issues.

“So, if someone wants to be in the House or Senate for a combination of 12 to 16 years, but on a part-time basis, I don’t have a problem with that,” Agema said.

“That way, you have a little continuity, and people don’t leave before they understand the system.”

Agema would like the Legislature to be limited to meeting three months a year – four in an emergency – and convene only on Friday afternoons, Saturdays and Sundays, “so that ordinary people with jobs could be state representatives,” he said.

Former House Speaker Jase Bolger, who left office in December due to term limits, said that what often gets lost in the discussion about term limits is the voice of the people whom lawmakers represent.

“The result of term limits is that, when lawmakers leave, bureaucrats and the bureaucracy remain, and the people’s voice comes and goes,” Bolger said.

“Constituents need help dealing with the red tape that bureaucrats put forward, and the bureaucrats are the ones that are the more powerful.”

He noted it also takes time to educate new lawmakers on the state budgeting system, and, as they gain experience, they understand better where there might be other opportunities to balance the budget, rather than the “worst-case scenario” often presented by bureaucrats, he said.

It also takes time for lawmakers to develop the trust and relationships needed to build consensus and solve complex problems, he added.

“People can be frustrated with their government, and so they’re hesitant to say these folks need more time in office, but it really shouldn’t be about that,” Bolger said. “To maximize accountability toward taxpayers, you maximize the voice of the people.”

Marijuana issue

Matt Marsden of the Michigan Cannabis Coalition was thrilled with the 34 percent of voters who said they’d support pot legalization.

“These are the party establishment, and to have them showing that level of support among Republicans is incredibly great for our efforts,” Marsden said. “We didn’t have an expectation that we would win over that group, but to see that level of support is outstanding.”

State Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, who opposes legalization, was also encouraged by the poll results opposing the proposal.

“The long-term effects of marijuana use are quite clear,” said Heise, who chairs the House Criminal Justice panel.

“It’s detrimental to people’s long-term health, and I also believe it’s a gateway drug. I know some people will disagree with me, but I believe it will open the door to harder and harder drugs, like heroin, which is on the rise right now in our country. I think this is just a place where we need to draw the line.”

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