Michigan Term Limits Still a Good Idea? Think Twice

Mr. SmithOne of the issues likely to surface in Michigan’s upcoming lame-duck legislative session will be the easing, or wholesale lifting, of the state’s constitutionally mandated term limits on lawmakers.

Although the restrictions remain popular among the electorate, this is perhaps the only issue where legislators, on both sides of the aisle, actually know better.

A deep disdain for “career politicians” is the persistent refrain heard from proponents of term limits on elected officials — often voiced in the same breath as a call for a part-time legislature. These voters long for the false nostalgia and naiveté of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — because surely, a fresh-faced, honest, work-a-day, regular kinda fella would do a better job than a seasoned, and most certainly corrupt — politician — a title that’s taken-on a sinister meaning in all circles. Candidates routinely campaign on their political ignorance, as if a lack of job skills were a favorable attribute.

jeff irwinAnn Arbor area incumbent lawmaker Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-53) finds term limits troubling, referring to them as “mandatory inexperience laws”, explaining that they “wouldn’t work well for airline pilots or surgeons and they don’t work well for public officials either. Experience usually leads to better performance and I would think we would want better performance from our elected officials.”

The Michigan House and Senate are poised to welcome nearly fifty green (not in the environmental sense) lawmakers among their ranks this January — that’s one-third of their collective bodies — with none knowing their way around Lansing, nor possessing the most rudimentary knowledge of basic legislative protocols. Incumbent lawmakers will try to act as mentors for their freshmen brethren, yet they have precious few years experience to draw-on themselves. It would be the nearly blind-leading-the-blind, except there’s a whole class of skilled educators at the ready to assist the latest bolus of rookies.

They’re called lobbyists — Lansing is overrun with their ilk, and is flush with their ready supply of cash, booze and sundry perks.

Under Term Limits, Lobbyists Run Michigan

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports, according to Michigan Department of State documents, that “spending by Michigan lobbyists totaled $20,574,448 in the first seven months of 2014.” In the category of just food and drink alone, lobbyists literally wined and dined lawmakers to the tune of $442,182 during that short period, with yet much of the money still going undisclosed because it flew-in under the reporting requirement threshold.

Rich Robinson of the MCFN, a reform advocate with an amusingly wry sense of humor, refers to the feeding frenzy as the Lobbyists’ SNAP program — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Politicians:


In addition to the caviar and champaign, the latest group of GOP neophytes now await their plum committee assignments. Soon to be termed-out lawmakers understand it’s become time to hand over the reigns to the least experienced among their ranks in order for them to take a crash course in legislative leadership.

Inexperience = Very Bad Public Policy: A Case Study

Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-86) was put in charge of the House Committee on Education within months of her election. In an editorial she penned last year, the 34 year-old lawmaker explained her qualifications — she didn’t cite her scant real estate background, nor her degree in agriculture, or even the closest she’s come to “leadership” in public education — her position as point guard on her high school basketball team. Nope, the one shining skill Lyons boasted she brings to the job is her ability to successfully breed. Lyons postulated that as a mother of four children she has “a great interest in public education and an immense passion for the kids in our schools.” By that measure, the Octomom would be twice as qualified.

Recently re-elected to serve her final term, Lyons intends to use the lame-duck session as a prime opportunity to forge her brief House leadership legacy. She is determined to ram through her signature legislation which intends to impose  an “old school” letter grading system on Michigan public school teachers — à la the failed federal program, No Child Left Behind. HB-5112 calls for the development of an A through F scale to be deployed by 2016. The specifics are troubling: the plan encourages more testing; and therefore, more teaching-to-the-test; it mandates that schools in the lowest five percent will continually be penalized; it ignores the detrimental effects of poverty; and it encourages elitism by allowing top-performing schools to opt-out of the testing.

That is, part and parcel, the level of maladroit lawmaking Michigan has come to expect since term limits forced Lansing leadership to play off the bench. Voters are getting what they pay for. And, they’re going to continue buying more substandard governance with the latest arrivals. Rep. Irwin describes the steep learning curve:

“I would point out the state of Michigan budget is about $52B annually. To get one’s arms and head around an enterprise that large is difficult.”

Send in the Clowns

Brian Dickerson recently opined in the Detroit Free Press about some of the top issues on the agendas of incoming GOP lawmakers:

… many of the Republican newbies have expressed enthusiasm for new restrictions on abortion rights, expanded privileges for gun owners and concealed-weapons permit-holders, and increased privatization of public services, none of which appear on any second-term agenda that Snyder has shared with voters. [emphasis mine]

There’s the other P-word: privatization — the budgetary elixir of every bright-eyed sophomoric Republican swept into office by virtue of gerrymandering. Even the ultra-conservative think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, understands there are limits to its applications. In their report, the Michigan School Privatization Survey -2014, they concede that the rate of privatization is slowing for good reason:

It could be that school support service privatization has topped out. In other words, there may come a time when all the districts that could contract out for quality services while simultaneously saving money have.

Here’s a sprinkling of the kinds of rhetoric and public policy ideas Michigan can expect out of the 2015 incoming freshmen class:

Jim Runestad (R-44) is worried about Canadians swarming our borders. He wants to devote resources to shore-up our northern border to keep-out those pesky Canucks who intend to steal our good American jobs .

Jason Sheppard (R-56) shares Lyons’ solution to the sky-rocketing cost of higher education — trade schools. “We should encourage students to look into the skilled labor force.”

Eric Leutheuser (R-58) — Hopefully the healthcare plan offered to lawmakers will help him remove the big-ol’ stick up his butt — “I promise to you that, whatever the subject of proposed legislation, or whatever problem it seeks to address, it will have to pass my “Family, Church and Local Community” test.”

Saving the best for last, like a delicious dessert topping…

Aaron Miller (R-59th) wants to protect zygotes, including those resulting from rape and incest — not an unusual GOP position, but just hear how he describes it: “This is not an issue of government intruding into mothers’ lives; this is a case of society accepting a horrible tragedy as a normal way of life. Each person is fearfully and wonderfully made and deserves a fair chance at life. A baby is a person and deserves life every single time.” 

Gary Glenn (R-98th) reportedly wants to criminalize homosexual behavior. (Hmmm, yet another homophobic lawmaker… doth he protest too much?)

These officials would seem to embody the defining argument in favor of term limits, yet reality dictates just the opposite. Term limits rush inexperienced lawmakers, fresh off the campaign trail, into filling key policy making positions, where they are not only ill-prepared, but can’t seem to distinguish the difference between campaign rhetoric and serious statesmanlike behavior.

Partisan bickering increases under term limits when lawmakers know there’s no need to forge working relationships with those with whom they may disagree. Rep. Irwin has found that in his experience they reduce “collegiality and civility in politics and make it harder for compromise.”

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-17) has been floating the idea of easing, or eliminating term limits, and is likely going to introduce legislation to accomplish that in the lame-duck session. In 1992*, voters amended Michigan’s Constitution to adopt term limits, thus it will require more than a simple up-down legislative action to rid the state of their deleterious effects. The bill would demand a two-thirds approval by lawmakers, and would go on to become a statewide ballot question.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

*Correction 11-13-14 to indicate term limits were adopted in 1992, not 1994 as originally reported.

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6 Responses to Michigan Term Limits Still a Good Idea? Think Twice

  1. Bill Henner says:

    How else are we going to get rid Rick Jones.

  2. Scott Graham says:

    Instead of ending term-limits, how about we end lobbying. Get the money out of politics. If new elected folks are too green, then let’s put them on probation at a reduce pay until they can do the job. There are so many things that are wrong in politics that term-limits are not even on the scale of things that need to be changed.

  3. James Gault says:

    A minor correction: term limits were adopted at the general election in 1992.

  4. Nick Sayers says:

    I suppose you had no problems with Rep. Frank Foster (R) receiving money
    from out-of-state gay activists Tim Gill and Paul Singer to push the revision of Elliott Larson to include “sexual orientation?”

  5. Term limits is a terrible idea — you get rid of bad legislators by voting them out of office. Term limits is a childish knee jerk reaction. We need intelligent experienced people in the legislature. It is hard to tell what kind of person you are voting for when they have no record. Intelligent voters can vote out the bad actors and keep the good experienced ones. Eliminate this terrible law. Can it be done by starting a petition to get it on the ballot?

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