Study: Michigan’s Experiment with Term Limits Has Failed

Is it time to get rid of our state’s term limits, or extend the amount of time lawmakers can serve?

Jake Neher/WDET

Twenty-six years ago, voters in Michigan overwhelmingly supported a measure that created term limits for elected state officeholders.

The last vestiges of the pre-term-limits era left the Capitol building in 2010 with George Cushingberry, who went on to be a Detroit City councilman. Cushingberry, whatever else voters thought of him, was known for his deep institutional knowledge of how the system works, and how to get things done.

That’s a real concern in the era of term limits in Michigan that something really important and substantive has been lost.

Come January 2019, more than half of all lawmakers in Lansing will be new to their chamber. The revolving door in Lansing keeps legislators intellectually thin, and leaves the onus of institutional knowledge on lobbyists and moneyed interests.

A new study from Citizens Research Council (CRC) shows term limits have failed to deliver on its promises — that races would become more competitive and bring in fresh, capable talent to replace tired and corrupt career politicians.

“It could be better there, is the point of our paper. It could be better,” says Eric Lupher, president of CRC.

“The idea [that term limits were] going to bring about the ‘citizen legislator’… that really hasn’t played out in a lot of ways,” says Lupher. “The institutional processes have really suffered.”

Lupher says an example would be brand new freshmen lawmakers empowered as committee chairs. Committee chairs oversee big and complicated subjects that affect the entire state, such as transportation and infrastructure, K-12 education, and the state’s annual budget.

Zach Gorchow, editor of Gongwer News, which covers the state Capitol, says term limits have not fed into a so-called do-nothing legislature.

“If anything it’s led to even more activity because you have legislators that only have six years to make their mark,” says Gorchow. “They’ll just be throwing everything at the wall… I feel like every year since I’ve been here, there’s more activity, more bills, more committee meetings.”

Gorchow says there has been a series of legislative leaders who haven’t gotten along particularly well, and haven’t worked together for a long time. He says that leads to a frenzy of lawmakers passing bills in one chamber that will likely never move through the second chamber.

Ultimately the frenetic pace of things in Lansing among lawmakers who don’t spend a lot of time working at the Capitol leads to more power for lobbyists, says Gorchow.

“They’re the folks who have a lot of the expertise now… You tend to see the legislators turning to the lobbyists to find out what’s the history on an issue.”

So, would Michigan voters consider going back to the old days? Or modifying term limits in a way that would allow officeholders to build more experience and expertise? What do you think of Michigan’s term limits?

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