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The truth about term limits

May 10, 2018

Twenty-six years ago, Michigan voters faced a ballot proposal to amend the state constitution to impose strict term limits on all federal and state officeholders.

That didn’t get a lot of attention then, because the main event that year was the battle between the first President George Bush, his young challenger Bill Clinton, and third party candidate H. Ross Perot. Michigan voters picked Clinton, and also opted by a landslide for term limits. I was around then, and think many chose term limits because they wanted to get rid of longtime federal officeholders like Congressman John Conyers.

Well, as any constitutional scholar could have predicted, the federal courts immediately struck down the part of the law that applied to congressmen and senators.

You’d have to amend the U.S. Constitution to change their terms. But voters here did have the power to impose term limits on state officials. And the result has been disaster.

That’s been apparent for years to anyone familiar with Lansing. But that’s further validated by an important new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, which has done high-quality, non-partisan policy research for more than a century.

Wayne State University professors Dr. Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and her husband, Lyke Thompson have been studying the effects of term limits in this state almost since they began, and the Citizens Research Council report is essentially based on their findings.

To summarize, term limits were sold to the public as a way to end career politicians, make elections more competitive, and increase diversity among elected officials.

Term limits have done none of that. While they did increase the number of women lawmakers briefly, that number then went back down. What they have done is cause our legislators to see their jobs as a stepping stone to their next office, and they’ve vastly increased the influence of lobbyists and special interests, and severely damaged our state.

Legislators lack the experience and the institutional knowledge they used to have, are less and less able to find bipartisan solutions, and the constant need to run for their next office has sapped “their will to confront politically difficult issues.”

The result: “In the decade from 2002 to 2012, Michigan was the only state that decreased its spending on municipal governments and the services they provide, making local governments the big losers under term limits.” Lawmakers today pay less attention to what folks at home need and want, and this has had devastating consequences.

The Citizens Research Council report found that the main problem lies not in the term limits themselves, but in the fact that of the 15 states that have them, Michigan’s are the shortest and strictest. Lawmakers can serve six years in the house, eight in the senate and then they are banned for life. Ohio limits their representatives to two terms in each chamber.

But they can then sit out a term and come back, or jump from chamber to chamber, so there is always some institutional memory. There is broad agreement on two things in government circles today: Term limits are terrible, but there is no way to repeal them because they are popular with the public. Well, accepting that isn’t leadership.

Leadership means educating voters and working for change. Otherwise, Michigan seems bound to continue to go down the drain.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.