Part-time lawmaker idea stirs talk of term limit reform

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s petition drive for a part-time legislature has reignited a debate over Michigan’s strictest-in-the-nation term limits, with critics saying the combination could leave the Capitol full of amateur legislators.

Brian Calley

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said he has had some initial discussions with individuals or groups interested in eliminating term limits or making them more flexible, but he said it would be “premature” to discuss any specifics. Past reform efforts have fallen flat.

The potential 2018 ballot proposal would roughly cut in half legislators’ $71,685 annual salaries and generally allow them to meet for no more than 90 consecutive session days a year. Critics have said the part-time plan might limit the appeal of legislator jobs to retirees or those who can take off three months in a row from their jobs each year of their term.

“I’m concerned because we already have a lack of experience now,” said Meekhof, R-West Olive, who has called the state’s term limits law “a failed social experiment.”

“If you have term limits and a part time-legislature, you could seriously have someone be speaker of the House after being on the job 90 days.”

Arlan Meekhof

Small-government advocates say a part-time legislature would produce fewer laws, generate less busywork and save taxpayers money through reduced salaries. Of the 15 states with legislative term limits, Calley notes that only Michigan and three others — California, Florida and Ohio — also have full-time legislatures.

“If you think about it, that’s the worst combination, because people have to totally abandon whatever career they have going to serve for a finite period of time,” Calley said, arguing a part-time status could allow legislators to keep full-time jobs.

Michigan would be the nation’s largest state with both a part-time legislature and legislative term limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three states with more people than Michigan have a part-time legislature — Texas, Georgia and North Carolina — none of which also have term limits.

Critics fear part-time legislators could be asked to do the bidding of their full-time bosses in Lansing. And a weakened legislative branch, they contend, would empower the executive branch and increase legislators’ already heavy reliance on lobbyists.

Michigan’s term limits law, approved by voters through a constitutional amendment in 1992, allows legislators to serve up to six years in the 110-member House if they win election to three two-year terms and up to eight years in the 38-member Senate if they win two four-year terms. Combined, they can serve 14 years if elected to both chambers.

That lifetime cap is the shortest among the 14 term-limit states with two legislative chambers. Others allow legislators to serve up to 16 years or longer. Eight states have consecutive limits rather than lifetime limits, meaning legislators can reset the clock by switching chambers or sitting out two years.

“When you have heart surgery, you don’t get the guy right out of medical school,” Meekhof said. “You get the guy that’s done 500 heart surgeries. But in this profession, experience isn’t valued.”

Staying longer

Like the part-time legislature proposal, modifying term limits would require an amendment to the state constitution, which could be put on the ballot for voters to decide by way of a petition drive or legislative resolution approved by two-thirds of legislators.

Several state legislators told The Detroit News Calley’s part-time petition should stir talks on term limits reform.

“There should be a conversation — not about getting rid of term limits, because the public does want that and it allows for new voices to be heard — but having a little bit longer term limits would allow for people to get more experience so they can adequately represent the people in their local communities,” said House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing.

A full-time teacher could never be a part-time legislator, he said, suggesting Calley’s proposal would close doors to residents with professions that have their own strict calendars.

“When you have a part-time legislature, you’re going to have even ... less understanding of how this system works, and that never really works well for the citizens in the end,” added Singh, who is nearing the end of his six-year House run and considering a return to the private sector rather than challenging a Democratic incumbent in the Senate.

Calley, a Portland Republican who is considering a run for governor in 2018, has advocated for a part-time legislature since at least 2009, when he co-sponsored a joint resolution in the House.

He has supported term limit reform even longer. In 2007, Calley introduced a resolution that would have allowed a legislator to serve a total of 12 years in either the House or Senate, as opposed to 14 years combined. The resolution also sought to allow the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state to serve up to 12 years, up from the eight years allowed today.

“The public does not have to be protected from itself,” Calley said during his first term as a state legislator. “We already have term limits, every two years. They’re called elections.”

Problems with incentive

Calley now says he remains open to term limit reform but sees it as a distinct issue from his part-time proposal. Attorney General Bill Schuette, also a potential gubernatorial candidate, has supported a part-time legislature since at least 2010 but also maintains term limit reform is a separate issue.

“It’s just something I don’t think belongs in this proposal,” Calley said. “If people want to bring it up or put a proposal on the table for debate, I’d be happy to engage in that discussion.”

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer, who was Senate minority leader before term limits forced her out of office, said she is skeptical of Calley’s push to “clean it up” Lansing after he served more than six years as lieutenant governor.

“The frustration I think everyone has with government is there are too many people who aren’t thinking about the public they serve,” Whitmer said. “ ... My fear is that with even less experience that only exacerbates the problems we’re facing now.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed has proposed eliminating legislative term limits and said Calley’s part-time proposal is a “canard.” Creating a non-partisan redistricting commission to eliminate gerrymandering would do to more to improve governance, he said.

Under term limits, “everybody is looking for their next job,” said El-Sayed, former director of the Detroit health department. “There’s no incentive to actually solve real, big problems.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, supports a part-time legislature and argues that term limit reform is a separate discussion, but one he’s open to having.

Leonard said he personally supports current term limits but noted a 2010 resolution co-sponsored by former Rep. Bill Rogers, R-Brighton, that would have allowed legislators to serve up to 14 years in either chamber, rather than splitting up those years between the House and Senate.

“I think it would be a fair compromise and something we should discuss,” Leonard said.