The people of Michigan love term limits. Unfortunately, their elected representatives want to reform the constitutional amendment and lengthen their time in one of the nation’s highest-paid legislatures.
When citizens and politicians are at odds, it’s important to remind ourselves who’s the boss in this relationship. Politicians have a duty to us – not the other way around.
This principle is enshrined in line one of the Michigan Constitution, which says “all political power is inherent in the people.”
So, when citizens enacted term limits in Grand Rapids, and a Google poll showed only 1 in 10 Michiganders want to lengthen term limits, our elected officials should have gotten the message. They didn’t. They continue to shirk their obligation to constituents by scheming to weaken term limits.
Since the term-limit constitutional amendment passed with 59 percent of the vote in 1992, Michigan voters have always been the biggest winners. Nothing demonstrates this as well as a new report on electoral competition by the Institute on Money in State Politics.
Their research found that out of more than 7,000 state legislative races held across the country in 2014, 36 percent offered voters only one candidate. In 11 states, more than half of all races were uncontested. The takeaway? Uncompetitive elections have become an epidemic in the United States.
But Michigan’s term-limited legislature had a very different story to tell. It was the top performer in America, with 100 percent of races featuring at least two candidates. Michigan also led the country in electoral competition from 2001-2012, averaging a 98 percent contested rate among thousands of races.
The study found that the presence of term limits in a state correlates positively to the number of contested races. More competitive races force candidates to be responsive to the needs of
Term limits don’t only generate positive change in how we send our representatives to Lansing; they also impact who we send there. When turnover is built into the Constitution, citizens from diverse backgrounds are given an opportunity in public service. When career politicians run the show, fresh faces and perspectives find themselves blocked by a seniority system that prizes keeping power above advancing the best policy.
Those looking to repeal Michigan’s term limits love to extol the value of experience and “institutional knowledge.” If only we get rid of these rookies, they claim, veteran legislators can settle in and get to work fixing that which ails the state.
Fortunately, we don’t need to imagine what their ideal legislature looks like – the one without term limits. It already exists in our nation’s capital. Congress, the most experienced legislature in the country, has given us nothing but crippling dysfunction, partisan gridlock and exploding debt and deficits. “Institutional knowledge” apparently refers to the knowledge of how elected officials manage to stay in power for so long without doing a good job.
While voters are term limits’ big winners, aspiring career politicians and lobbyists are the big losers. Elected office was never meant to be a career, but a medley of perks and privileges changed that perception over time. Michigan’s Legislature today is the fourth-highest paid in America. That doesn’t include the $10,800 annual expense account, or health-care premiums lower than private sector averages.
For lawmakers, term limits represent not just a policy change, but an end to the gravy train. That’s why they fight so doggedly to repeal the limits. It’s also why Michigan needs a “conflict of interest” rule in our Constitution, which requires any modification of term limits to come from citizen initiative, rather than the Legislature.
Expecting legislators to give an honest assessment of term limits – with so much personal gain hanging in the balance – is like letting an author review his own book.
Despite myths to the contrary, lobbyists also lose power whenever term limits are enacted or retained, because the relationships they’ve built with incumbents are abruptly severed. They then need to work harder to form bonds with new members, who are less amenable to influence-peddling.
Term limits may cause problems for lobbyists and ambitious politicians, but they’ve been good for Michigan voters. As opponents wage a campaign based on letting voters chose, they ought to honor the fact that voters chose term limits.