Since 1937, Nebraska has had the only unicameral legislature in the United States. If the group Unicameral Michigan has its way, Michigan could join in this notoriety.
The group started collecting signatures earlier this month for a ballot initiative that, if placed on the ballot and passed, would eliminate the Michigan Senate. The group claims firing the Senate would improve the state government’s efficiency and drastically cut its bureaucratic spending. A less drastic proposal by state Rep. Glenn Steil Jr. (R-Cascade) calls to drop 50 members from the House and 18 members from the Senate. Both proposals argue that cutting down the Legislature will put money back into taxpayers’ pockets. But the small amount of money these proposals promise to save doesn’t justify the problems they would cause.
Unicameral Michigan’s proposal, for instance, doesn’t address the glaring problem with the legislature’s term limits. Currently, the Senate imposes a lifetime limit of two four-year terms, while the House permits three terms of two years each. Short term limits force short-term thinking. Eliminating the Senate would further accentuate the problems inherent in expecting inexperienced legislators to make wise long-term decisions. Michigan cannot afford cheap, short-term lawmaking imposed by a single, self-serving legislative body.
The Senate also adds another level of reflection to the delicate system of checks and balances. If the Senate were eliminated, the House would monopolize the decision-making process, making irresponsible legislation much more likely. A bicameral system forces a higher level of consensus on vital legislative issues. It provides an opportunity to second-guess reckless legislation that could hurt Michigan in the long term.
Steil’s less radical proposal does contain some ideas. It would lengthen the term limits from six to 12 years in the House and from eight to 16 years in the Senate. But its core concept – essentially cutting the Legislature in half – would put an unreasonable burden on state legislators. The great increase in the size of the districts they represent would no doubt be matched by a drastic decrease in the ability of lawmakers to serve their constituents and advocate for their interests.
Both proposals have serious flaws and would ultimately decrease the quality of representation in state government. Though Unicameral Michigan might merely aim to save a few taxpayer dollars, firing an entire branch of government is shamefully irresponsible. Steil’s proposal would ameliorate the worst effects of the state’s strict term limits. But the inflated districts it would create could only put extra weight on the backs of lawmakers already struggling to deal with an ailing economy and a structural budget deficit. With the serious issues facing the state, we need all the experienced legislators we can get.