Mass turnover fuels push for Mich. term limit reform

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan’s strictest-in-the-nation term limits law will force nearly 70 percent of state senators out of office in 2019 and more than 20 percent of representatives, a mass turnover that is fueling renewed interest in reform.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, an influential business group with significant financial resources, is considering a push for an amendment to the state Constitution that would focus on revising term limits. Michigan’s law, approved by 59 percent of voters in 1992, limits legislators to serving three two-year terms in the state House, totaling six years, and two four-year terms in the Senate, or eight years.

While details are still being worked out, the potential amendment would also propose other changes to “improve the effectiveness, accountability and transparency” of the Michigan Legislature, said Chamber CEO and President Rich Studley.

Scott Tillman, national field director for U.S. Term Limits, said his group would oppose any efforts to change Michigan’s rules or make them more flexible, arguing the Legislature and state chamber should “keep their hands off” a law voters chose to enact.

“We want people in there who have real-life experience under the laws they pass,” Tillman said. “We want teachers and reporters and farmers and truck drivers and even attorneys.”

Term limits remain popular with the voting public, but critics say Michigan rules have thrust inexperienced legislators into complex policy issues they may be ill-equipped to address. Any reform plan is unlikely to extend or repeal term limits but may instead allow legislators to serve longer in the House or Senate.

“Leadership really matters, and experience really matters,” Studley told The Detroit News. “I don’t know about you, but whether I’m looking for a haircut or auto repairs, I don’t deliberately seek out people who have less than six years of experience and don’t plan on doing it very long.”

Michigan allows lawmakers to serve a combined 14 years in both chambers and is one of six states with a lifetime ban on additional service. Nine other states let legislators sit out for a period of time, usually two years, and then run again. Thirty-five states do not have legislative term limits.

“We’re the Draconian term limits state,” said Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, a Wayne State University political science professor and co-author of “Implementing Term Limits: The Case of the Michigan Legislature.”

Her research suggests Michigan’s term limits have failed to deliver on many of the “good government” promises that appeal to citizens.

State legislators have become more politically minded since term limits took effect, she said. Because they serve for fewer years, they often enter office thinking about what job they’ll run for next.

“They’ve got one eye on that clock all the time instead of thinking, ‘I need to really fix this problem because it’s going to come back to haunt me,’ ” she said.

“More of them tell us they plan on a career in politics after term limits than said so before, and that is true for men and women both.”

The Michigan Chamber board voted Wednesday to contact other individuals and groups to see if there is enough organizational and financial support to push a term limits reform amendment, which would require voter approval on the 2018 ballot.

They have an ally in the Michigan Senate, where Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof has called term limits “a failed social experiment,” arguing the rules discourage long-term planning and prudent decision making at the state Capitol.

But Patrick Anderson, who wrote the state’s 1992 term limits amendment and now runs the Anderson Economic Group firm in East Lansing, said he believes the chamber’s effort will “persuade them that a vast majority of citizens are not interested in fixing a portion of the state constitution that is not broken.”

“The basic message citizens have given their government for 200 years now has been to have a Legislature full of people who represent citizens,” Anderson said. “To do that effectively, you want to make sure that those legislators are periodically drawn from the citizenry, and term limits ensures that.”

U.S. Term Limits’ Tillman said the rules should favor letting more individuals get involved in legislative decision-making.

“We don’t want it to be strictly a place where a bunch of people with an incumbent advantage have a lock on the system and are the only ones who can get elected and make decisions for the state,” he said.

Freshman legislators come to Lansing with real-world experience, but it’s not always applicable to major issues facing the state, Studley said. He noted at least seven state House policy committees are chaired by first-term lawmakers this year.

Term limits will affect the Michigan Senate next year more than any other legislative body, according to an analysis by Ballotpedia. Of the 38 state senators now in office, 26 are barred from seeking re-election in 2018.

In the state House, 24 of 110 seats will be vacated due to term limits. The 21.8 percent turnover rate is the nation’s second highest for any state House.

Meekhof, Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, and House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt are among top legislators who cannot seek re-election.

Nationally, Michigan is home to about 15 percent of all lawmakers who will lose their jobs because of term limits this cycle, said Rob Oldham of Ballotpedia’s state legislature project.

“It’s pretty big,” he said of the impact. “The same thing happened in 2010, where you had 25 up in the Senate and 34 term-limited in the House, and then in 2016 you had another 38 term-limited in the House.”

Eight years after a GOP wave, mass turnover in the Michigan Senate could give Democrats a shot at chipping away at a substantial Republican majority. Nineteen Republicans will be forced out of office, compared with seven Democrats. In the GOP-controlled House, 13 Democrats and 11 Republicans will be forced out.

“You’ve got a lot of seats that could potentially turn over,” Oldham said, “but it depends on whether the seats are actually going to be competitive if you’re going to see a partisan change or just a new Republican replacing an old Republican, or a new Democrat replacing an old Democrat.”

Tillman contends term limits have made legislators more responsive to their constituents, arguing “career politicians” often become beholden to special interests over time.

He pointed to campaign finance reports showing first-time state House candidates often put some of their own money into their campaigns or rely heavily on contributions from friends and family.

“The third time they run, or if they’re running for Senate, it’s almost all PAC and association money,” Tillman said. “So we clearly see who feels they have influence there.”

But Michigan lawmakers have voted less consistently with the views of their constituents since term limits were implemented and now rely more on legislative input from special interest groups, according to Sarbaugh-Thompson’s research.

“The really big losers, in terms of access to legislators, are key local officials,” she said. “They really take it on the chin. They lose access, and the lobbyists and interest groups gain access.”

Term limits also have other significant implications, Sarbaugh-Thompson said.

“What you find is you have freshmen chairing committees and that is a prescription for mistakes and errors,” she said, and said term limits have also given legislators less time to develop leadership skills within their caucus.