Flint crisis one symptom of a bigger problem: Term limits

The Blame Train continues to roll through Michigan as Flint’s water crisis becomes a national issue, attracting celebrity instigators and the like. Much of that blame is directed at Gov. Rick Snyder and recall petition are being passed around the state. He’s not the entire problem; there’s a lot of blame to go around.

One angle nobody is really talking about is something we, as citizens, did 24 years ago, when we amended the state constitution to impose term limits on state legislators. While most people don’t see the connection, it’s a shadowy presence lurking in the background of all this.

Much of the problem for Flint’s water fell on the Department of Environmental Quality, a department that has expanded in power and authority over the years, like many other bureaucratic agencies.

One problem with term limits is it took away some of the checks and balances of state government. It created a perpetual class of rookie legislators who aren’t around long enough to see the big picture. The result is an empowered class of bureaucrats who hold the power in Lansing. There are no term limits for administrators running the state agencies.

In the past, long-standing legislators could see big-picture changes and problems with state agencies and had the clout and authority to do something about it. There was more legislative oversight of many of the state agencies.

Today, we have a class of mostly good people in legislative office who don’t have time to really witness how everything in Michigan works and truly understand it. They must concentrate on specific issues to maximize their effectiveness in their limited time in office. They are basically agenda-driven. I’d be willing to bet that most of the legislators had little idea what was going on with the DEQ or in Flint until it broke in the media.

True, the idea behind term limits was to create a class of legislator who is truly a citizen-politician. We wanted people to bring real-world experience to the Capitol, make a contribution, and then return to their livelihood. It’s wonderful in theory, but there is a case for building longevity in Lansing and having people in power with historical perspective and understanding. Those are now the lobbyists and bureaucrats.

Term limits have, to some degree, degraded our system of checks and balances and empowered a bureaucracy that many times doesn’t have to face legislative scrutiny because nobody in office really understands them anymore.

Would the Flint disaster have happened with veteran legislators in office? It’s impossible to say, but likely there would have been an expert in the dome who was connected to the agency and was in a position to “see it coming” and do something about it.

This is possibly one of the trade-offs with the “throw the bums out” mentality that drove us to term limits in the first place.

Perhaps it’s time to re-examine that decision.

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Phil L.
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 1:05pm
I'm not sure term limits are the reason bad things happen in state government and I don't understand the connection between agency directors' length of service and legislator's time in office, but I could be wrong. While the Flint issue was building up, our state senators - many of whom have already served six years as a representative and are somewhere in their eight-year senate limit - have had ample opportunity to weigh in on the problems facing urban communities. How many years does it take to have the necessary experience in government? What is the learning curve? I find it hard to believe that 14 years just isn't enough, but I could be wrong. I imagine that few Democrats would want Dave Agema to serve 20 years and few Republicans would want Ellen Cogen Lipton to serve 20 years. Of course, maybe it depends on which party is in the majority. I just don't want to give legislators a pass because they've only been in office for say, only four years.
Mark C
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 2:39pm
The relationship between bad things happening and term limits is the inability of legislators to develop any kind of expertise in any given area of the law or governmental administration. It is much more difficult for legislators to get to know the bureaucrats that run agencies, and to develop a sense of the effectiveness and philosophical approach of those persons. That being said, another reason for the systemic failure of DEQ and DHHS has been the relentless pressure to move experienced (and therefore more expensive) employees out, with endless offers of early retirement, as a means of reducing the budget. This also means the loss of knowledgeable people with institutional wisdom, in agencies struggling to perform too often unwelcome regulatory functions. To put it succinctly, you get what you pay for, and the state has been trading more costly experience and knowledge for cheap rookies for a long time. This time, going the cheap route didn’t pay.
John Q. Public
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 5:48pm
I posit that the problem (such as it is--I never noticed government in the era of unlimited legislative service to be anything about which to brag) has less to do with term limits and more to do with lack of life experience. Although both parties are guilty, one is a lot more so than the other at nominating people for office who have been out of college for only half the amount of time that they were in it. That typically happens in a politically "safe" district where, upon certain election, the neophyte can be controlled with promises of future power. They aren't part of the problem because the haven't been able to "form relationships;" they are because they know next to nothing about almost everything. People shouldn't be eligible to be run for legislature until they're 30 years old. I originally argued for 36, wanting them to have spent 50% of their days on Earth as an adult before they get to vote on how everyone else should live, but hey, I'm willing to compromise at 40%.
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 10:06am
I agree! The issue with government today isn't term limits, it's political science majors. (no, I am not picking on them... hear me out) We don't have "tenured" political leaders. We don't have leaders with business acumen. A college degree doesn't provide real world experience. But seriously, it is our own apathy that has caused this problem... as we are the ones voting people in office. IMHO as example if you want to be head of an environmental division, you should have a degree and real world experience in that area as base criteria. If you want to be Governor, you should have a business degree (as example), a minimum number of years in upper-level management in a business, and then several years of experience as a political leader at the community/city level. But... let's not forget, that the problem isn't just the top dogs... it's who they bring with them and the accumulated intelligence and diversity of the team. Our apathy, and our willingness to elect via "popular" vote just mucks up the system. If each candidate for office and any Division Director (or leader) were required to provide a resume meeting minimum standards, like any other business is run, then we might have a better chance for quality instead of luck.
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 5:58pm
I voted no on term limits, it undermines the voting process. It also meant that once a new state representative was elected I would have to start all over again addressing the issues I discussed with the last one
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 8:53am
Term limits undermine the voting process? There is no voting process today. There are only two major candidates that get support on any state or federal level election, and those two candidates are chosen by the party elite. They get a huge boost from the contributions of lobbyists who expect some form of payback if they are elected. The more they pay back, the more they will receive for the next election almost giving them lifetime "employment" as the voice of the lobbyists. The problems we face today started long before term limits were enacted in Michigan. They have only come to a head lately because it takes time for them to develop into problems of epic proportion. Take Flint's lead problem as an example. The Lansing water district had lead pipes as did Flint, but they started a gradual program of replacement several years ago and today are almost lead free. Flint had the same timeframe, and also the money when they were cash rich from the days of GM factories there, but no one acted. The Emergency Manager law was a result of cities promising far more in benefits than one with an actuarial thought process would have given. This problem again took several years to manifest itself. I say it is better to force change in government through term limits, and get a continually changing set of fresh eyes on the problems, then to have the same person keep looking at something and not even understand what is being looked at.
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 6:29pm
Connecting the term limits of our legislators to the flint water crisis is comparable to blaming the drought in California last year to what happens in Monaco. The DEQ district office and the person in charge of municipal water supply were responsible for the addition of the chemical to prevent leaching of metals in to the water. They would have also known it was being added previously. Asking the emergency manager to make a decision on this was not only illogical but also irresponsible considering he had no knowledge of water treatment. He should have never been asked. If handled correctly at the government level it should have been, no legislator, the Governor or even the DEQ administration should have even known about it. If the authority was taken away from DEQ to make decisions about this, the administration deserves the full brunt of the blame. A responsible person in the emergency management position would have asked for input about adding the chemical instead of making an uninformed and irresponsible decision.
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 8:15pm
The MDEQ is a critical state department because people get sick and die if they don't do their job right. With the Republican tri-fecta, there are no checks and balances in Michigan state government. Add term limits and gerrymandered districts to the mix and we not only don't have checks and balances, we also have predominately ideological radicals on both sides of the aisle. The MDEQ needs checks and balances, but this won't come from our normal political processes. The MDEQ needs an elected board, similar to the boards that set policy and choose the leadership for our three research universities. This change will require a change to our constitution: ballot proposal anyone?
Sherry A Wells
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 9:39am
I wrote 5 editions of Michigan Law for Everyone. When I began to update the 2002 edition, I found that the only substantive changes had been to give more protection to doctors and insurance companies from suit. I attributed this to term limits and heavy lobbying to such rookies.
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 2:36pm
If Mr. Shaw is so sure that we would be better off without ‘term limits’ then why doesn't he describe how it would make the legislature better? If he believes that the longer a legislator is in office they learn special knowledge and skills that the rest us can’t learn by not being office, why doesn't he describe some of that special knowledge and skills so we can use that to verify that our Representative or Senator has learn that special knowledge and skills and should be voted for? Or does Mr. Shaw assume that being in office for a long time is reason enough for re-electing them?
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 2:56pm
The problems in MI are complex, historical and partisan. To say "term limits" is the problem does not get down to the root cause of this problem and is a very simplistic . Michigan is in the worst shape it has ever been in and our democratic process of elections has been hijacked by special interests and the too much money in politics. This happens at every level of government, from the governor, to the legislature, to the judges and right down the line. There is a certain level of competence needed to be in government. You must understand you "represent" all the people in the state, county, district in which you were elected. Governor Snyder is responsible for the health and well being of 9.1 million people. One of the glaring problems in the Snyder administration is the lack of competence of several of his administration, and the culture of fear of speaking up if issues identified were not favorable to the "bottom line". Michigan is a great example of a state that has been raped and pillaged by this patriarchal, I know what is best for you administration. I want to hand it to Karen Weaver for stepping up in Flint, speaking out to protect the people she was elected to protect. It is going to take the courage of women like that to get into government and "lead".
Mon, 03/07/2016 - 12:37pm
Snyder should really be responsible for all 9.9 million people in the state. We've lost population over the past two decades, but we're not down to 9.1 million. That said, the term limit is one of the root causes. Few states use term limits, but most have symptoms that Michigan faces. To to say that they are historical and partisan - those aren't causes, but descriptors. Partisan issues exist all over the country, but when looking at the gerrymandered districts, a legislator in Michigan faces their biggest challenge from someone in their own party, rather than across the aisle. As many have said, the revolving door has allowed lobbyists and bureaucrats the ability to do their work, unfettered largely, because their isn't a knowledgeable person keeping tabs on them. Reps are re-elected every two years, for a maximum of six years. Senators, every four, for a max of eight years. The learning curve for someone involved with a $50 billion + budget in a two-year term is enormous. I'm guessing that the lobbying industry does a very good job of "educating" a legislator of what will be best for the state and its residents. Much like how the pharmaceutical industry used legions of reps to "educate" physicians on the merits of their products. Physicians have restricted access to their persons greatly, via th Sunshine Act. Maybe such transparency is needed for our legislature? Oh, btw, I realize that there is a strong aversion to career politicians. Is there an equally strong aversion to career physicians, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, carpenters, engineers, electricians, hair stylists?
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 4:34pm
I agree with Mark C. I am a retired state employee and former mid level "bureaucrat" in two different departments. When I started in State Government, both the Michigan House and Senate included long term legislators who really knew and understood the workings of my department and the needs and desires of the various community stake holders in the work of that department. Other legislators really knew and understood the workings of other departments. Long term legislators became specialists. Because of their expertise, they had clout. They could require action. They knew when the wool was being pulled over their eyes. They actually did oversee the workings of state government (sometimes more aggressively and more reflexively than I would have liked.) Most importantly, they knew what they were talking about. State government is complex. It takes time to learn the laws and regulations governing the work of a department. Term limited legislators are not in office long enough to gain much expertise. Because they have so little depth of knowledge, they rely on staff and on lobbyists and party leaders to tell them what they ought to think. They are not able to provide meaningful substantive oversight of the Executive branch. When law makers lack in depth knowledge about the roles and responsibilities of a state department, it is easy to for the "bottom line" to become the only issue that garners any real attention. The tragedy in Flint is an example of what can result. Linda
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 9:15pm
Right on, Linda! And the experienced legislators with specialized knowledge about certain issues and departments knew which state employees would give them the straight scoop on how to improve State operations and implement needed changes. Rookie legislators are mostly behind the curve.
Tue, 03/08/2016 - 1:55pm
SE, Are you suggesting that it takes 'knowledgeable' legislators looking over agency shoulders make the agencies staffs provide quality services to the Michigan residents? I believe that the agencies have the capacity to manage themselves and deliver quality service. My concern is the long standing Lansing mindset that prevents those in Lansing from looking at outside organizations to see what organizational tools and approaches they are using to succeed or fail. In Lansing they see everything as command and control while successful outside organizations are about performance. Pre term limits the long serving legislators developed their relationship with the agencies/people and became an extension of those agencies. They even developed such relationships that they were able to manipulate those agencies for their personal benefits. I believe that the best place to drive change is through exposure to new perspectives/ideas. I would like to see those being elected more involved with those outside of Lansing. I think that making the legislature part-time could be an effective way of making the legislators more connected and less focused [as some claim] on what their next job will be. I see the legislator not as those running the agencies, but as those working to seek the laws that will serve the public. If the legislators are needed to provide direction for the agencies then why don;t they include a description of the purpose for each program and metrics to measure the effectiveness of those programs?
Ann Farnell
Thu, 03/10/2016 - 4:18pm
Also as a former manager with the state, I couldn't agree more with Mark C and Linda! I also agree with those who think the age for elective office should be 30, which has a better chance at electing mature and, hopefully, more community invested people who perhaps could be less reflexive and more reflective.
Timothy Caldwell
Mon, 03/07/2016 - 9:43am
Term limits was one of the biggest mistakes Michigan voters have ever made. While I had not made the connection to the Flint water crisis that Mr. Shaw makes, but I agree that term limits is a factor. Well said, Mr. Shaw.
Steve Hanley
Mon, 03/07/2016 - 12:47pm
Now that lobbyist are pushing for the repeal of term limits it only further bolsters that they are serving the intended purpose.
Tue, 03/08/2016 - 10:22am
I agree that term limits are a big part of the problem, but I completely disagree with the arguments you make. In my experience most term limited legislators are totally agenda driven, and that agenda is "where is my next job coming from?" And if the legislators were not aware of the Flint water crisis before the news broke, then they clearly should not even be legislators, because the disgraceful condition of Flint's water was in the Michigan news long before the lead issues surfaced. Michigan has the strictest term limits in the country, and it is ruining us. We need to soften or eliminate them for the good of our sinking state.
Tue, 03/08/2016 - 1:08pm
So if it weren't for term limits our state reps would be real tight with the bureaucrats, lobbyists, and other big wigs? Isn't this what we usually refer to cronyism? Isn't the usual path that people go into politics because they have an agenda or fire in their bellies? Then it flags and they drift into get along go along. Which would you rather have? And if term limits are so bad, are you saying that you say hope the Mich house and Senate would be more like the US House and Senate? Maybe you're shooting at the wrong target?
Thu, 03/10/2016 - 12:21am
The MDEQ does not serve the people of Michigan as it should. By definition, it panders to the oil industry or mining industry or whoever the government wants to do business with. There is very little regulation because those in charge are generally PR and know next to nothing about protecting our citizens and natural resources. It's become a damn disgrace.
Sat, 04/23/2016 - 12:57pm
The concept of term limits isn't the problem. The problem is the 6 year limit in the House. First, why do we need so many legislators? And, more importantly, what possible justification is there for 2 legislative bodies? Solution? Eliminate the Senate, reduce the size of the House to say 81, create 6 years terms which rotate among the districts so that only 1/3 are up for election every 2 years and then provide for a limit of 2 terms. Voila, we save money because there are fewer mouths to feed, one body is responsible, the leadership will be experienced, and nobody will overstay their welcome. Additionally, the elected representatives won't need to spend all their time raising funds to campaign (and being cozy with lobbyists) because they will only be able to run twice.