Finley: Join Shirkey's drive to end term limits

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he is looking at 2022 instead of 2020 for a ballot measure because he will be term-limited out by then and won’t personally benefit from a change in the law.

Mike Shirkey startled attendees of the recent Mackinac Policy Conference by declaring he’ll work to put an initiative on the 2022 ballot to repeal Michigan’s term limits law. Not extend them. Get rid of them.

It was a bold pledge from Shirkey, the Clarklake Republican and Senate majority leader, and one I hope he fulfills.

Term limits have ruined Michigan. Everyone complains about them. Nearly everyone agrees they’ve made policymaking more challenging, and produced an inferior class of political leaders.

But the consensus has been that attempting to alter Michigan’s 1992 term limits law, which passed with 59 percent of the vote, would be a futile exercise. The belief is that voters are still happy with the law, and wouldn’t support a new ballot measure to change it.

I’ve been involved in a few exploratory discussions over the years to come up with a plan Michigan voters might accept, including one that would have extended term limits in exchange for making the Legislature part time, but they’ve all fizzled.

Shirkey is the first leader to recognize that halfway measures will produce halfway results. He’s talking about repealing term limits altogether, and returning to the days when voters decided how long their politicians stay in office.

“There’s no middle ground here,” Shirkey said. “You either have term limits or you don’t. We have natural term limits. They’re called two-year and four-year election cycles.”

And voters have used them well in recent Michigan elections, turning out a number of incumbents up and down the ballot.

Term limits stem from the offensive notion that voters are too stupid to act in their best interest; that they need to be protected from democracy. Advocates also promised that they’d produce true citizen lawmakers who leave their communities for a short period, contribute their wisdom to the Legislature, and then return to private life.

That’s not been the case at all. Term limits have not put an end to career politicians. Instead, they’ve created pogo-stick politicians who are always looking ahead to their next elected jobs. 

That mindset causes them to put their own career ambitions ahead of the interests of the people. They’re afraid to take positions that may harm their bids for the next office. Or worse, they’re looking ahead to post-politics life and using their votes to court future clients or employers.

Michigan lawmakers are limited to three, two-year terms in the House, and two, four-year terms in the Senate. They aren’t in office long enough to develop deep expertise on policy, or to forge relationships that foster consensus-building. They end up being led around by lobbyists.

These green lawmakers often don’t even understand what they can and can’t do under the state Constitution. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, who was on the same Mackinac panel as Shirkey, very candidly admitted, “half the work we do in the Legislature is fixing bills that we voted on the previous year.”

Chatfield, who just turned 31, became speaker with just four years of legislative experience. 

Shirkey said he is looking at 2022 instead of 2020 for a ballot measure because he will be term-limited out by then and won’t personally benefit from a change in the law.

But the rest of Michigan would. All of those business and civic leaders who continuously gripe about term limits should get behind Shirkey with their dollars and influence to help make his pledge a reality.

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