Terms of Limitation

Nearly 20 years later, the merits of Michigan’s congressional term limits are still being hotly debated.
Term-limited legislators have yet to deal with a costly state bureaucracy.

Next year will be a banner year for Michigan voters who savor fresh political winds — or red-meat politics — as three-fourths of the state’s senators and nearly a third of the representatives will be rookies in every sense of the word.

A new governor and other executives will also roll into Lansing, further altering the landscape. The impending changes are occurring largely because of term limits, which automatically broom incumbents who have served the maximum number of years allowed by the state constitution.

Backers praise term limits as a way to prevent politicians from holding elected office for life (known in certain circles as “throwing the bums out”).

But depending on whom you talk to, the forced stream of fresh Capitol faces either presents a dilemma or proves Michigan is getting the citizen legislators voters ordered up back when they approved term limits in 1992. Such restrictions, the theories go, either contribute to Michigan’s economic and business woes or represent the hope for the future.

“Not all term limits are created equal,” says Bob LaBrant, senior vice president and legal counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce in Lansing. And, along with California and Arkansas, he adds, “Michigan got stuck with the most draconian term limits in the country.

“Once you do your rotation in the Legislature, you are forever forbidden to run for those offices again. We’ve institutionalized inexperience in the state House of Representatives. We’ve put people in leadership positions way before their time. If we were making wine, we’d have rotgut.”

Right or wrong, term limits get blamed for many of the state’s fiscal woes and last-minute tax decisions. One of those 11th-hour moves slapped a 22-percent tax surcharge on Michigan businesses — a surcharge LaBrant calls an “abomination”; in 2007, lawmaker procrastination pushed the state into a brief, partial shutdown — not exactly a warm invitation for businesses to make Michigan their home.

Term limits, LaBrant contends, have given bureaucrats more power — and that has the potential to hurt businesses that are subject to state regulation.

For example, LaBrant says the recently reorganized Department of Environmental Quality was very difficult to deal with when it came to permits.

“There was a lot of delay,” he says, “and, frankly, probably some degree of harassment that a number of businesses felt. They’d come out and look at your parking lot and decide you had some runoff … and that created a wetland. It was nuts.”
Former state Rep. Ruth Johnson supports term limits.

“Citizen legislators are what our founding fathers had in mind,” she says. “I probably would not have had a chance to serve unless there were term limits. Being a legislator should not be a career. I believe term limits help stop the go-along, get-along Lansing culture.”

After serving the maximum six years allowed in the state House, Johnson is now the Oakland County clerk.

Sarah Hubbard says that, over the years, many members of the Detroit Regional Chamber have seen term limits in a negative light. “What bothers business is the inability to create relationships that allow tough problems to be solved,” says Hubbard, the chamber’s senior vice president of government relations. “There’s a fundamental lack of trust among legislators. We believe term limits contribute to that problem.”

So does Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who says trust can be in short supply in Lansing.

“That’s too bad, because we deal with some pretty complex issues that require members to do a lot of trusting,” he says. “If you don’t have that, you won’t get a lot of the big things done.

“When you think about it, these folks come and they know they have a limited shelf life. They’re willing to crash and burn for a cause because they know they may not be back in the future, negotiating with that same party.”

In 1992, voters amended the state constitution to create some of the most restrictive term limits in the country (59 percent of those who cast ballots voted yes). They set a maximum for representatives (three, two-year terms) and senators (two, four-year terms). Also restricted are the terms of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general (two, four-year terms each).

Critics consider Michigan’s rules tough because after a politician serves six years in the Senate and eight in the House, he is forever barred from holding either job again. Other states limit only a certain number of consecutive terms, allowing for an eventual return to office after skipping an election. Oklahoma limits its legislators to 12 years in office, but allows them to serve them all in one chamber or to split the time between the two.


Bill Ballenger, editor of the Lansing-based political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, posits why term limits were passed in the first place. “In the sessions just before [the ’92 election],” he says, “you had more legislators serving longer periods of time than at any point in Michigan history.

No one doubts the legitimacy of Michigan’s well-documented troubles, including one of the highest jobless rates in the country and a cash-short state budget. But are term limits at fault? Or is it a result of the sorry national economy? Or the rise of bitter, partisan politics in Michigan and elsewhere? Or a combination of the three? Could it possibly be due to other factors?

Ballenger says he never liked the idea of term limits, and that they don’t work as well as the old system of letting the voters weed out people over a period of time. But those limits, he contends, have also become a “whipping boy” for what ails state government.

Ballenger, himself a former state legislator, maintains that Michigan has never had such a lengthy period of economic calamity. “Any legislature, no matter how much experience it had, would have [had] problems over the last six to eight years,” he says. “The idea is that they’re wet behind the ears, the gang that can’t shoot straight, neophytes. That’s really a big stretch, and it’s wrong.”

Patrick Anderson, CEO of the Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group and author of Michigan’s term-limits amendment, also rejects the notion that it produced the state fiscal crisis.

“This is obviously incorrect because term limits also produced the legislature that was in office in the year 2000, when we had a 3.9-percent unemployment rate, a triple-A bond rating, and a billion-dollar rainy-day fund,” says Anderson, who in the 1990s worked as an economist for noted civic reformer Dick Headlee.

“It is not the case that there’s not enough technical knowledge around Lansing to figure out that we have a problem,” Anderson says. “It is a case of a handful of elected officials who have been negligent in their tasks.

“The logical reason [for term limits] is to make sure the people don’t become so entrenched in power that they become contemptuous of the people who elected them — or disdainful of the people’s interests compared to the interests of government or lobbyists or other interests that come before them regularly.”

When voters approved term limits back in 1992, Anderson adds, they “valued exposure to local concerns and experience in the local community [more so] than they valued tenure in government.”

For more than a decade, Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson has studied Michigan term limits, most notably in the 2004 book The Political and Institutional Effects of Term Limits.

Amid her ongoing research, Sarbaugh-Thompson has found that lobbyists and bureaucrats have gained political power, and that lawmakers don’t monitor state agencies closely.

After 1992, monitoring agencies fell to “dead last” in the things legislators do, she says. “After term limits [were instituted], there were quite a few people on the [House] appropriations committee who didn’t even realize [that] they’re responsible for this. Quite humorously, we had to kind of steel ourselves when we were getting ready to ask this question. They would give us a little mini-lecture in American politics and tell us, ‘Oh, no, no, no, the governor is responsible for the executive branch. We don’t do that.’”

The “no, no” rubs against the notion of checks and balances, where each branch of government restrains the others’ power — a theory that logically requires each branch to know what the others are doing.

“If you give them X number of years,” Sarbaugh-Thompson says, “they’ll come up to the learning curve — just like the veterans did. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with these folks as legislators. They’re bright, they’re committed, they’re hard-working. It’s just that when they come in as freshmen, there’s nobody there to train them.”

So do term limits give any interest group, such as business, a leg up?

“I don’t think so,” the professor says. “I think everybody lost. We just don’t have a smart policy anymore. We don’t have ways to figure out something that would be a win-win for everybody, or at least a bit of a draw where we can move forward and there aren’t big winners or big losers.”

But inaction on some matters, Sarbaugh-Thompson says, can be a problem. “Our sewers are leaking and overflowing, our bridges are falling down, our roads are full of potholes and tear up our cars. The list goes on and on and on. You can’t advertise yourself as a good place to do business when you’ve got that.”

Studies show that Michigan’s bad roads add to the annual cost of vehicle repairs, which raises the cost of driving (and, as a result, doing business) in the state.

Overall, Sarbaugh-Thompson fears the Michigan House, the “people’s chamber,” has lost some of its ability to keep other elements of government in check — and that more and more policymaking will defer to a few key leaders.

State Sen. Patty Birkholz says state government needs to restructure its finances, and that will require negotiation between competing interests.

“Some [inexperienced lawmakers] think you shouldn’t even talk to people across the aisle. You’re never going to get anything done unless you talk to your colleagues on the other side of the aisle.”

Birkholz recalls how former Gov. John Engler used to say that Lansing’s ZIP code was “56201.” That’s 56 votes in the House, 20 votes in the Senate, and one governor’s signature before anything becomes a law.

In Michigan, hardly anyone expects term limits to be overturned anytime soon. In the 18 years since the limits were adopted, there’s been no public outcry for repeal. LaBrant, of the Michigan Chamber, says voters might buy making term limits more flexible, allowing lawmakers to accrue more seniority in one house or the other.

The problem, he says, is that “many of these legislators are inexperienced and don’t know how much they don’t know.”

Top Michigan Lobbyists By Expenditures
RankLobbyists Name / Organization20092008Change
1Governmental Consultant Services Inc.$1,302,306$1456,324-11%
2Kelly Cawthorne1,082,419856,22926%
3James H. Karoub Associates 871,5061,001,441-13%
4Muchmore Harrington Smalley & Associates731,176633,94515%
5Wiener Associates634.302604,4975%
6Public Affairs Associates Inc.576.079576,4970%
8Michigan Education Association494,234408,31521%
9Capitol Advocacy Services Group415,514180,000131%
10Kheder Davis & Associates Inc.314,313212,20448%
11National Federation of Independent Business302,042324,295-7%
12Capitol Affairs LLC296,765257,27315%
13Scofes & Associates Consulting Inc.290,465126,777129%
14Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan254,960434,045-41%
15LGI Consulting239,22565,000268%
16Michigan Bell Telephone Co.226,979179,56626%
17Michigan Legislative Consultants Inc.222,841219,5462%
18Michigan Health & Hospital Association216,479432,378-50%
19Cusmano Kandler & Reed Inc.211,050256,562-18%
20Consumers Energy Co.210,360389,131-46%
21Knight Consulting193,917199,7553%
22Insurance Institute of Michigan181,621162,11812%
23Wayne State University181,402143,29827%
24Aft Michigan174,863170,3283%
25Ford Motor Co.160,966175,667-8%

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