GOP lawmakers, chamber, VNP exploring term limit, transparency reforms

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

An unlikely coalition is exploring a proposal that would ease term limits in Michigan less than six months after Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said he planned to challenge the limits through a ballot initiative.

Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, have held preliminary discussions with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and government reform group Voters Not Politicians about a possible ballot initiative in 2020. The plan would address Michigan’s strictest-in-the-nation term limits as part of several reforms aimed at ethics and transparency issues.

The legislation limits the number of petition-drive signatures that can be collected in any single congressional district, a change that opponents say would diminish the constitutional right of citizens to initiate legislation and ballot proposals.

The new proposal could include increasing the state's term limits to a total of 20 years across the two legislative chambers — up from the current 14 years, according to two sources with knowledge of the talks.

The plan also could make it more difficult to pass laws in the lame-duck session, the period after a statewide election in early November and before newly elected lawmakers take office in January, the sources said.

Protesters besieged the Michigan Capitol last year when Republican lawmakers sent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder nearly 400 bills in the lame-duck session after the election of Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as governor.

Snyder signed most of the bills but vetoed a slew of controversial legislation, including a measure that would have given the GOP-led Legislature greater power to intervene in legal battles as Democrats took over the attorney general's and secretary of state's offices.

The Capitol newsletter Michigan Information & Research Service first reported Tuesday the discussions.

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 of Representatives and two four-year terms in the state Senate. Governors can only serve two four-year terms.

Spokespersons for Shirkey and Chatfield confirmed talks with Voters Not Politicians, the grassroots group that won voter approval for creating an independent redistricting commission that will redraw political boundaries for state legislative and congressional races in 2022.

“The majority leader’s interest in changing term limits is well known,” said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Shirkey. “VNP has also expressed interest in the issue, and the majority leader has met and talked with the group. He is willing to talk about changes to term limits with any interested party.”

Voters have been "demanding greater accountability and transparency," and the Legislature is listening, Chatfield said in a Tuesday statement. 

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.

"Not much is finalized just yet, but I am proud to be working together in a bipartisan way with everyone who is willing to come to the table with real ideas for how to improve state government and make our elected officials more responsive and accountable to the people they represent," he said. 

Items being considered for a potential initiative in 2020 include policies that could shift how state government functions in Lansing. The other reforms include creating a "cooling off period" between when legislators leave office and when they can register as a lobbyist, increased financial disclosures for lawmakers and expansions of the Freedom of Information Act, according to the two sources.

Michigan is one of two states that don't require lawmakers to file any form of personal financial disclosure about their outside income. A House committee approved bills to require disclosures in Michigan earlier this year, but the bills have faced resistance from Shirkey.

Michigan also currently allows former lawmakers to become lobbyists immediately after leaving office. At least 11 elected officeholders who departed state government at the end of 2018 have registered to lobby so far in 2019. They include Republican former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Democratic former House Minority Leader Tim Greimel.

Voters Not Politicians' citizens redistricting commission initiative was opposed by legislative Republicans and the chamber and is facing GOP court challenges.

A Voters Not Politicians representative said Tuesday the group had spoken with several organizations, including lawmakers, about potential government reforms and “will consider taking them to the ballot should that be necessary.”

“Voters Not Politicians is committed to advancing reforms that will make our government more transparent and accountable to the people, including ending the revolving door, term limits, opening the Legislature and governor to FOIA, and ethics reforms all aimed at restoring Michigan voters’ faith in our state and democracy,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians.

Chamber representatives attended “preliminary discussions” regarding term limit changes, but Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley declined to say who attended the meeting.

The chamber has long favored easing term limits because of the burden it places on new lawmakers to quickly get up to speed on complicated policy issues such as the no fault auto insurance reform passed earlier this year.

Studley said the chamber is open to working with “traditional and nontraditional” partners to reform term limits “if the opportunity presents itself.”

Complications such as other initiatives on a given ballot and the presidential election could make for a “noisy and crowded ballot” in 2020, he said

In addition, the state’s diverse population paired with 14 different media markets make a ballot initiative a hard sell without a diverse coalition running the information campaign, Studley said.

“The larger and more diverse a coalition, the easier it is to cover the whole state,” he said.

The groups have two ways to get a constitutional amendment before voters in November 2020. The Michigan House and Senate could approve putting the issue on the ballot with at least two-thirds support or a ballot group would have to gather 425,059 valid signatures by July 6.