Finley: Term limits stifle Snyder

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder has an ambitious agenda for his final year in office, one that includes transformational education reforms and finally corralling the runaway pension and retiree health care obligations of local communities.

But it’s also one that risks crashing against the wall of term limits. Not his, though the governor is forbidden by state law from running a third time.

Rather, it is legislative term limits that threaten to frustrate Snyder’s hopes for leaving behind a state that is fully prepared to train its workers for good jobs, catch up with the rest of the nation in education performance and avoid collapsing under crushing pension debt.

Simply put, the legislative infrastructure is too weak to carry such a heavy load of policy making. Term limits have left state government in worse shape than the state’s roads.

And now they threaten to deny Michigan the rare opportunity to exploit this final certain year of total Republican control in Lansing by fixing the lingering drags on the state’s competitiveness.

Term limits produce a perpetually inexperienced Legislature. For example, only a handful of lawmakers who went through the arduous process of deciding on Detroit’s bankruptcy bail-out just three years ago remain in office.

That vote exposed lawmakers to the gritty give-and-take of politically charged negotiating. It forced them to make risky decisions, and left them better prepared to take-up the sort of complex issues Snyder is presenting to the current Legislature. And yet nearly all of them are gone, unable to apply the lessons they learned to today’s challenges.

Many more are heading out the door. Seventy percent of state senators and 20 percent of representatives will be termed out at the end of 2018.

What that means is a lot of lawmakers are moving into the checkout lane, looking beyond this session to what they are going to do next. For many, the choice will be running for another elected office, and the demands of campaigning for a new position will divert their attention from policy making.

House Speaker Tom Leonard is among those seeking a different political future. He’s preparing a campaign for state attorney general.

Leonard goes into this fall’s flurry of legislative initiatives with not even one full year of experience as speaker. He’s a smart guy, but hasn’t done this before.

He hasn’t had time to build up either clout or the relationships he needs both within his caucus and with the Democratic minority to push through difficult bills. And since he’s on his way out the door, along with so many of his colleagues, there’s little he can offer in terms of future favors and committee assignments to assemble winning coalitions.

Leonard has also made damaging rookie mistakes, including publicly humiliating a dozen of his Republican colleagues for not supporting his income tax cut proposal.

Currently, he’s preoccupied with trying to shepherd no-fault insurance reform into law. That’s going badly. Leonard doesn’t yet have the reach to manage multiple legislative initiatives at once. The governor’s priorities will have to be rolled out slowly so as not to overwhelm Leonard and the other caucus leaders. Some may not get introduced before the session ends.

If Rick Snyder’s tenure ends with a sputter rather than a bang, Michigan’s self-destructive term limits law will be to blame.

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