Michigan Legislature places term limits, financial disclosure proposal before voters

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — For the first time in 30 years, Michigan voters in November will be asked to reconsider the term limits they voted to put in place in 1992 for members of the state House and Senate. 

The Michigan House and Senate on Tuesday generated the two-thirds majority support needed in unscheduled votes to place the proposed reforms on the November ballot, including requiring state-level office holders to submit annual financial disclosures to address conflicts of interest. There was no discussion or debate of the plan in either chamber.

The House resolution introduced by House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell,  bypassed the signature gathering process usually required for a constitutional amendment to go before voters.

The term limits proposal is the first to earn a spot on the November ballot. More than a dozen other petition initiatives — covering a range of issues from voting limitations to abortion rights to the legalization of psychedelic mushrooms — are working to gather the necessary signatures to qualify for the November ballot or be adopted ahead of time by the Legislature. 

The Legislature's vote came a day after Voters for Transparency and Term Limits asked the GOP-led House and Senate to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, but the language passed through the House and Senate has significant differences from the original proposal when it comes to financial disclosures.

The Legislature worked with Voters for Transparency and Term Limits to make the changes to the language and the group said it supports the resolution passed Tuesday by the chambers.

"By putting transparency and term limit reform on the ballot in November, they are allowing the people of Michigan to play an important role in moving our state forward," the group's co-chairs Mark Gaffney and Rich Studley said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said voters should have a chance to fix some of the unintended consequences of the 1992 law they approved. 

“In my view, Michigan’s current term limits discourage good people from running for office, shifting the power from the people to the bureaucracy and interest groups, which negatively impacts the legislative process," Shirkey said.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, backed the proposed change in term limits because current rules "discourage good people from running for office, shifting the power from the people to the bureaucracy and interest groups, which negatively impacts the legislative process."

The legislatively placed proposal will mark the second statewide vote on term limits in the past three decades. Without the Legislature's Tuesday vote, the plan would have needed to collect 425,059 valid signatures by July 11 to advance to the November ballot.  

Economist Patrick Anderson, who helped lead the 1992 effort to put term limits in place, criticized the Legislature's actions, noting there was no public vetting of the resolution prior to the vote nor was it read aloud on either chamber's floor. 

"Not a single citizen in the entire state has had a chance to take a look at the resolution they passed, ambushing the voters before noon," Anderson said. "The stench of this will last all the way to November.”

Term limit tweaks

The 1992 rules adopted by voters limit members of the state House to three two-year terms and members of the state Senate to two four-year terms, for a max of 14 years between the two chambers. 

The plan advanced Tuesday would allow lawmakers to serve 12 years overall in Lansing, spending potentially their entire time in the House or Senate or dividing the years between the two chambers.

The plan would make an exception to the 12-year term limit for senators elected to office in 2022, who would be able to complete two, four-year terms even if it amounted to more than 12 years when previous House service is taken into account.

The House resolution does not appear to put in any restrictions that would prevent a former House lawmaker who had been term limited to run again under the new 12-year window. 

Critics have argued the current term limit rules have led to a revolving door, as  lawmakers move from one position to another, and has ensured lobbyists often have more institutional knowledge than the lawmakers themselves. 

Lawmakers on Tuesday noted the 1992 rules had a particular effect on the state House, where newcomers in a short span of years are expected to come up to snuff on the legislative process and decades-old policy quandaries; build relationships across the aisle; ascend to leadership positions; and campaign regularly for re-election or election to the state Senate. 

"When you come in and you don’t really understand where even the bathrooms are let alone how bills are drafted…and you don’t have any relationships with people, all a person really has to work with is their ideology and they don’t have any understanding of how to practically apply that," said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.

Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, added that, under the current scheme, lawmakers are unable to oversee or tweak the policies they put in place to address a long-term issue. The proposal headed to voters seeks to address that, he said.

"I think this will create long-term, good impact on public policy here in the state because, hopefully, the people who author them are still going to be accountable instead of creating a short-term proposal and then leaving other legislators in the future to clean up the mess," Moss said.

Financial disclosures

The proposal approved by the Legislature also would require personal financial disclosures for lawmakers and statewide elected officials to identify conflicts of interest. Michigan is one of two states that doesn't require financial disclosures from lawmakers and efforts to advance legislation putting such a requirement in place have failed. 

The language approved by the Legislature would require annual financial disclosures from lawmakers, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and secretary of state starting April 15, 2024. 

But Michigan lawmakers significantly watered down the proposed financial disclosure requirements for themselves that were originally proposed by Voters for Transparency and Term Limits.

They removed a provision that tied the Michigan disclosures to the policy for members of Congress, who have to file detailed reports annually. Instead, the Legislature would get to craft the elements of the state disclosures.

The House scrapped the adoption of the congressional model, House Republicans spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said, because the circumstances surrounding a conflict of interest at the state and federal level are vastly different. He said very few states use the congressional standard for state-level officials.

State legislators have narrower authority than members of Congress who face potential conflicts when it comes to their influence over issues such as international trade and the stock market.

Moss and McBroom added that the provisions in the resolution are meant to serve as a floor upon which the Legislature can build to address conflicts of interest but also improvements in ethics, oversight, campaign finance and public records requests. The proposal going before voters is better than what's currently in place, Moss said.

"Right now, there is nothing and it's kind of this free for all, and we see legislators who voluntarily recuse themselves from votes but it's self-policing," Moss said.

Lawmakers also significantly altered a proposed requirement they broadly report “travel payments and reimbursements” they receive.

Under the resolution approved by the House and Senate Tuesday, lawmakers would have to only report “travel payments and reimbursements received and required to be reported by a lobbyist or lobbyist agency as prescribed by state law.”

The language indicated that only travel payments that are already “reported by a lobbyist” would have to be disclosed by a lawmaker, potentially leaving out trips legislators receive through entities that are not registered lobbyists, such as nonprofit organizations their associates run.

A nonprofit organization tied to former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, reported spending $142,266 on travel and entertainment for public officials in 2020 alone. However, the Peninsula Fund hasn’t had to report who the officials were who benefited.

Republican campaign consultant Fred Wszolek expressed skepticism over the changes to the financial disclosure language. 

"Watering down the financial, gift and travel disclosures will doom the constitutional amendment proposed today," Wszolek wrote on Twitter.