State - Lansing Efforts to lengthen state's term limits seem stalled Voter support for changing state constitution is lacking

By Kathy Barks Hoffman

Associated Press Writer

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan will head into 2011 with at least 29 new senators and 34 new House members, all replacing lawmakers leaving under term limits.

To supporters, this is exactly how term limits should work. Allowing House members to stay only six years and senators eight is intended to create a Legislature where citizens serve while taking a short break from their regular jobs, not an institution staffed with career politicians.

"New blood brings knowledge and, more importantly, a sensitivity to the concerns of ordinary citizens into the legislative process," said Patrick Anderson, an East Lansing economist who helped push through term limits in 1992.

Many people who have to deal regularly with the Legislature, however, say Michigan's term limits aren't working. They'd like to change the state constitution, though there isn't much voter support for doing so.

School superintendents, business groups and others closely watching the state budget are concerned little will get done to tackle Michigan's economic and fiscal problems early in 2011 because new lawmakers -- along with a new governor replacing term-limited Gov. Jennifer Granholm -- still will be learning how to run state government.

"We have so much turnover in the House, we've just kind of institutionalized inexperience there. And we put people in leadership positions long before their time," said the Michigan Chamber of Commerce's Robert LaBrant, who voted for term limits but now opposes them.

A Wayne State University study released this past week notes that Michigan lawmakers said in interviews conducted from 1998 through 2004 that they spend less time monitoring state agencies and are more likely to turn to lobbyists as a source of information and guidance now that term limits are in place.

"Term limits were sold to Michigan voters on the notion that they would sever close ties with lobbyists and cause legislators to be more independent. In reality, we found them to have the opposite impact," political science professor Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, one of five study authors, said in a release.

Even so, Michigan isn't likely to get rid of term limits any time soon. Nearly six out of 10 Michigan voters approved term limits 18 years ago, and there has been no groundswell of support for overturning them.

Several lawmakers have introduced measures recently that would let lawmakers serve a total of 12 to 14 years, either in the House, the Senate, or a combination of both. The bills have yet to make it past either chamber and the change would have to be approved by voters before it could take effect.

Citizens could put a measure lengthening term limits on the ballot, but it would cost around $1 million to collect the signatures needed to qualify.

"I just don't see that coming down the pike any time soon," LaBrant said.

Just 15 states have legislative term limits, and those in Michigan, California and Arkansas are the most restrictive. The three states limit House members to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms.

Unlike states where lawmakers can sit out a term and then start the clock running on another round of service, Michigan has a lifetime ban on additional time in the Legislature once the limit is reached.

Several states have decided term limits don't work. Lawmakers in Utah and Idaho repealed their term limits laws, and term limits in the Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington state and Wyoming constitutions were struck down through the courts, according to elections analyst Jennie Drage Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She said NCSL reviews of states with term limits indicate that lawmakers who can serve only a short time generally are at a disadvantage to state workers who may be there for decades.

"There's some shifts in power ... with the executive branch gaining power at the expense of the legislative branch," she said. "It's an information advantage that translates into influence. In many states we saw the same thing with lobbyists, because they stick around."

Speaking together at a recent Michigan State University event, former governors James Blanchard, a Democrat, and John Engler, a Republican, said term limits are a huge obstacle to creating the collegiality necessary to get budgets and laws passed.

"We're going through legislators so fast these days," bemoaned Engler, a former term limits supporter who served in the House and Senate for two decades.

Case in point: In January, three-fourths of the Senate seats and nearly a third of the House seats will be filled by new members. The House will elect a new speaker who has served four years or possibly only two, while the Senate will pick a majority leader who may have House experience but will have served just four years in the Senate.

Lobbyists will begin a new round of building relationships, and university presidents, school superintendents, hospital administrators, local government officials and department heads will begin educating newcomers on the intricacies of their organizations' needs.

"We've had three speakers in a row where they had two years of legislative experience before they became speaker. It hasn't worked well," LaBrant said.

He and other term limit opponents point to two government shutdowns in the past three fiscal years and political gridlock at the Statehouse as evidence term limits aren't working.

Anderson disagrees.

"It's clear to me that the primary cause of our fiscal crisis is negligence on the part of our elected officials, not a lack of experience," he said. "You don't need a lot of experience to know you can't spend money you don't have."

Published: Tue, Mar 16, 2010