EDITORIAL: It's time to extend legislative term limits in Michigan
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The report, compiled by the Michigan Society of Association Executives, concluded that after 20 years, the current system of term limits for lawmakers has not resulted in a Legislature that’s any more effective, and if anything, it’s only increased the power of lobbyists and bureaucrats in the state Capitol.
That reality may help explain why voters in California - which had a system similar to ours - have just extended term limits. We renew our call for the people of Michigan to do the same.We are not contending that term limits have been a complete bust, or that they should be eliminated. The days of legislator-for-life in Michigan are gone, and we don’t want them back.
But if the old system allowed politicians in certain safe districts to remain in office far too long, the problem with the current term limits is that they’re too short. Under the term limit proposal approved by Michigan voters in 1992, a lawmaker may serve no more than three two-year terms (a total of six years) in the state House and no more than two four-year terms (a total of eight years) in the Senate.
The result, in our view, is a less experienced Legislature that puts too much of a premium on partisanship. We find this to be particularly true of the House of Representatives. When you turn over the entire membership of that chamber every six years, nobody serves long enough to develop the leadership, the relationships and the institutional knowledge necessary to address complex issues and achieve compromises that move legislation forward.
The result has been partisanship and, quite often, political paralysis. Novice lawmakers cycle through the Legislature so quickly that they barely have time to learn the ropes and gain experience before they’re replaced by yet another wave of newbies.
California has been through similar legislative churn, and people there evidently have had enough of it. After rejecting two previous efforts to reform term limits in 2002 and 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposal this month that will allow a lawmaker to serve up to 12 years in either the House or Senate. Supporters of the idea say it will allow legislators to gain more experience by serving longer in the same office. “The status quo is broken,’’ a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters told The Los Angeles Times.
We acknowledge that term limit reform could be a tough sell in Michigan. Term limits have been a popular concept here over the years, according to opinion polls. But efforts for reform have been made in the past, and will continue.
When we editorialized on this topic in 2010, the Ann Arbor-based Center for Michigan was conducting an online petition drive asking lawmakers to put the issue before voters. In 2011, state Rep. Sharon Tyler, R-Niles, offered a plan that would limit a lawmaker to serving no more than 14 years, but allow him or her to serve that tenure in either chamber.
With the shift in voter mood in California, talk of term limit reform has been revived here in Michigan. Last week, state Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy , told Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio that he hoped Michigan would follow California’s lead by tweaking the system to allow somewhat longer terms here.
There’s been less gridlock of late in Lansing, but not because of greater statesmanship or bipartisanship. Whether you agree or disagree with what has been accomplished over the past year and a half, most of it has been rammed through by a GOP majority. The underlying inexperience and sectarianism in the Legislature remains.
In the long run, we think the public would be better served by a more seasoned and less partisan group of lawmakers. Extending term limits to 12 years in either chamber seems reasonable, and voters ought to have a chance to consider a proposal along those lines. We don’t know any industry that gives people just enough time to learn their job and then throws them out. The Legislature shouldn’t either.
(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and represents the opinion of the Editorial Board at AnnArbor.com.)