Term limits in the Michigan state legislature are some of the most restrictive of any state in the country, which will make for huge change due to hight representative turnover following midterm elections in November.
In interviews with The Michigan Daily last week, experts on the issue said though term limits are detrimental to the efficiency of the Michigan state government, eliminating them is not a feasible option.
While term limits are meant to motivate politicians to act with a sense of urgency during their brief positions, some experts say the limits — six years in the state House of Representatives and eight years in the state Senate — don’t give those in Lansing time to gain experience in the legislature. This makes it more difficult for government officials to solve problems like budget deficits and tax codes.
Prior to 1992, the Michigan legislature had no term limits for representatives. The state constitution was amended in 1992 to introduce term limits in an effort to bring new people and ideas to government.
The amendment followed a trend which began with the 1947 establishment of a two-term limit on the United States presidency. Since then, controversy over the effectiveness of term limits has ensued. Several attempts to lengthen or remove the limits in the Michigan legislature entirely have been made, but none have gained enough momentum to be implemented.
Communication Studies Prof. Michael Traugott said term limits were introduced because the public believed they were reasonable checks on legislators’ power.
However, Traugott said voters today have different views on term limits, adding that the conflict is between “popular attitudes about too much government influence in our daily lives” and “a public policy-making perspective that says that length of service builds expertise.”
Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, a public policy professor at Wayne State University, researches the effects of term limits on the Michigan state legislature. Though some of her research shows that shorter term limits can be an effective way to increase the number of bills passed in a given congressional cycle, she said the bills tend to be “somewhat ill-conceived legislation or somewhat trivial legislation.”
Sarbaugh-Thompson said legislation passed simply for the purpose of increasing productivity has created proposals for the naming of a “state cookie” and “state amphibian” but has failed to address more important matters, like the structural budget deficit under which the state operates.
Sarbaugh-Thompson said though she acknowledges that getting rid of term limits is not politically realistic, she would be in favor of eliminating them altogether. She said a good fix for now is simply to lengthen the term limits, which would allow state legislators to develop legislative skills.
John Chamberlin, a professor at the Ford School of Public Policy, agreed that increasing the term limits is the best approach for now. To further shorten term limits, he said, would be detrimental.
“If you had them shorter than Michigan does at this point, it would really be an amateur hour in the legislature,” Chamberlin said. “Nobody would have experience running committees, subcommittees, putting together party caucuses and all.”
Though Michigan has shorter term limits than most states in the country, other states also impose term limits on their legislators. According to Sarbaugh-Thompson, 21 states initially instituted term limits, though five of those states have since repealed them.
Sarbaugh-Thompson said in order to change term limits, either the Michigan legislature has to propose a bill and send it to Michigan citizens or citizens have to vote on a ballot initiative. Because a change in term limits would amend the state constitution, citizens would have to vote for the change, Sarbaugh-Thompson said.
Despite the negative effects term limits have had on the legislature, Chamberlin pointed out that other states with term limits have had worse experiences. He cited the New York state legislature, which has more to worry about than term limits.
“I don’t think that the Michigan legislature is deeply corrupt; they’re just not very competent at this point,” Chamberlin said. “You could have legislatures that aren’t very competent and they’re corrupt, and New York’s got those. I think their problems are worse than ours.”