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Opinion | Michigan term limits sounded good, but they’ve failed

Michigan is about to get a full dose of term limits. Between legislators reaching the end of their terms and those leaving the House in hopes of filling vacated Senate seats, more than half of all legislators will be new to their chamber come January 2019.

And state government leadership will change because of term limits. Michigan will have a new governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, senate majority leader, and speaker of the house because everyone currently serving in those roles will have exhausted their eligibility to serve in those offices or chambers.

Twenty-five years ago, term limits proponents persuaded Michigan voters that limiting legislators’ tenure in office would revitalize American democracy.  Scored against the improvements promised by those proponents of term limits, there is little indication that term limits have delivered on those promises.

Phil Power: The case for ending Michigan’s system for term limits

Term limits have not made elections more competitive. Incumbents are safer and open seats are less competitive, with more voters in highly competitive districts confronting one hand-picked candidate in the primary. It is difficult to assess whether term limits have expanded opportunities for ethnic minorities because gerrymandering has reduced the number of districts with high concentrations of them. The number of women legislators increased immediately after the adoption of term limits, but has subsequently returned to pre-term limits levels.

Term limits have not severed cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists. Legislators indicate that they rely on organized groups and lobbyists, partisan staff, bureaucratic staff, and non-partisan legislative staff as key providers of information on the bills they are considering in committee deliberations. These sources are sometimes accused of being part of the swamp that term limits proponents railed against.

Before term limits, local officials were an important source of information and guidance to legislators. After term limits, the interest groups that recruit candidates have become key sources of information and guidance. Legislators from both political parties have become more extreme than their constituents. Political parties have become more polarized, moving away from each other and, more importantly, away from their voters.

Legislators are much more politically ambitious than were their pre-term-limits counterparts. Contrary to the selling point that term limits would rid government of career politicians, legislators have become increasingly driven by electioneering concerns. The focus has shifted from retaining legislative seats to moving up (from the House to the Senate or Congress) or down (to county commissions, city councils, or other local governments). The focus is on short-term gains and fixes because politically costly solutions might undermine legislators’ plans for their next political office.

Legislating before term limits allowed legislators to bank political capital that could be cashed in when difficult votes were needed. Michigan’s brand of term limits ended the ability of legislators to amass political capital. Legislators’ preference for electioneering saps their support for policies that lack immediate political appeal.

It is impossible to isolate the effects of term limits from a host of other factors that might explain legislators’ behavior. During this period, Michigan has gone from above average to below average in per-capita personal income. Governing is difficult under these conditions. Nonetheless, it is fairly clear that term limits have accentuated pre-existing propensities rather than change individual and organizational dynamics. Michigan’s exceptionally short tenure in office increases political ambition, which fuels partisanship, and enables legislators to kick the can down the road for the few years they are in office.

The chief problem rests not with having term limits, but also with the fact that among the 15 states with term limits, Michigan has the shortest and strictest limits. Voters seem very much supportive of term limits, so efforts to eliminate them would seem to have little chance of success.

California and Arkansas, which had similarly stringent limits, modified theirs to allow legislators to spend all of their time in one chamber. This approach would smooth out the waves to avoid turnover in the magnitude we’ll see in 2019, allow legislators to gain more expertise on the issues they address in their committees, and enable chamber leaders and committee chairs to become better at their tasks.

See more of this analysis in our new report, Evaluating the Effects of Term Limits on the Michigan Legislature, or in a book authored by Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and Lyke Thompson from Wayne State University, Implementing Term Limits: The Case of the Michigan Legislature.

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