Beyond term limits: 5 ‘good government’ ideas eyed by Michigan reformers

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has called the state’s strict term limits law a failure. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

LANSING — An unlikely coalition eyeing changes to the state’s term limits law is working to break a legislative logjam on government reform proposals in a state notorious for failing grades on ethics and transparency.  

Voters Not Politicians, the grassroots group that successfully pushed an anti-gerrymandering ballot proposal last fall, is discussing a suite of reform ideas with Republican legislative leaders and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which fought the creation of an independent redistricting committee ultimately approved by voters. 

Early talks have included possible action on public records access laws, lobbying reforms, personal financial disclosures, ethics oversight and limitations on aggressive legislating during the state’s lame-duck session after November elections and before new terms begin.

“The genesis of this all this was my saying I’m willing and wanting to look at term limit reform,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

“To get term limit reform, we’re going to have to offer voters other things that are of interest to them to give them assurance that their elected officials are properly held accountable.” 

Shirkey has called the state’s strict term limits law a failure. The Michigan Chamber echoes the sentiment and is driving the push for a ballot proposal to revise –  but not fully repeal – rules that limit lawmakers to serving six years in the House and eight years in the Senate.

But Shirkey has also opposed or questioned the need for some legislation supported by Voters Not Politicians or passed by the House with the support of fellow Republicans, including bills to subject the Legislature to the state’s public records request law and require candidates to disclose personal financial information. 

He could be open to compromise, however.

“I think with an issue that is contentious, the majority leader would say he has to be open-minded about a variety of other policies that might go along with consideration of changes to term limits,” spokeswoman Amber McCann said Wednesday.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, has not publicly backed Shirkey’s push to amend term limits, but he’s advanced ethics and transparency legislation and is “interested in pursuing a wide range of reforms for good government,” said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro. “There’s still work to be done, and discussions yet to be had, but there’s a lot of shared interests.”

Amending the state’s term limits law would require voter approval to amend the Michigan Constitution. Other proposals that could make it into a final reform package would also require voter approval, but some could be enacted by the Legislature and a signature from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

Here’s a look at some of those other reforms, and where they stand:

Public records

The Michigan House in March unanimously approved bipartisan legislation that would subject the state Legislature and governor's office to public records requests –  a form of government access available to people in 48 other states. 

Chatfield backed the package and had sponsored similar legislation that also cleared the House in 2017. The speaker has "long been a supporter" of the effort, D’Assandro said. "He'd like to see that get done."

Former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof refused to take up the public records legislation last session, and Shirkey has yet to do so this year.

"We’re going to do something, but it won’t be exactly like what the House is sending over” Shirkey promised more than seven months ago in comments he has never clarified. 

The House-approved plan would create a new Legislative Open Records Act that would allow the public to request records but exempt some communications, including constituent emails. It would exist separately from the Freedom of Information Act that applies to most other government officials and entities across the state. 

The potential for a larger reform package has excited supporters. 

“I’m encouraged that it’s at least getting out of the halls of Lansing and into the public awareness because this is a huge problem,” said Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, who sponsored the public records legislation in the House last session.

Like redistricting reform, rules for accessing public records are “not the sexiest thing to talk about, but it’s just as fundamental in making sure that the government operates correctly and is accountable to the people that it should operate for,” Moss said. 

Revolving door 

Reforms to prohibit lawmakers from immediately working as lobbyists once they leave office were welcomed by Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who has sponsored “cooling-off period” legislation. 

It’s among the ideas Voters Not Politicians executive director Nancy Wang highlighted Tuesday after the group confirmed initial meetings with Shirkey and Chatfield. 

Michigan is among only a handful of states without any kind of a cooling-off period for lawmakers. Rules in other states are designed to prevent real or perceived conflicts for officials who could be promised a future job by a lobbying firm seeking a government favor. 

“People are fed up,” Runestad said. “I think they want to have assurance that the Legislature and the government is operating cleanly. If we can get that through, however we do it, I think it’ll be a benefit to the people.”

At least 12 term-limited lawmakers and Snyder administration officials have registered as lobbyists since leaving office last year, according to state records, including former Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, who now lobbies for appropriations on behalf of clients at the powerful Kelley Cawthorne firm. 

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley last year proposed closing the "revolving door" as part of his campaign for governor but registered as a lobbyist two days after leaving office in his new role as president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

The state’s term limits law encourage a biannual churn.

As Bridge Magazine previously reported, former state Rep. Paul Opsommer used his seat to fight construction of a new international crossing that will compete with Ambassador Bridge, whose owner he started lobbying for in 2013 less than 100 days after leaving office. 

Runestad said he’s personally conflicted about term limits, but other potential reforms that could be part of the mix “looks good,” he said. 

“I’d love to get rid of lame duck.”

Lame-duck reform 

While full elimination appears unlikely, early talks about a reform package have included potential ways to rein in the so-called lame-duck session, the roughly month-long period after an even-year election but before the end of a two-year session.

Recent lame-duck sessions have produced a flurry of last-minute action, late-night voting and sloppy legislating. With Republicans set to lose the governor’s office, lawmakers in December rammed through a $1.2 billion supplemental spending bill that critics likened to a Christmas tree.

Among other things, lawmakers approved more than $115 million in pet projects, including $10 million in water and sewer lines in Washtenaw County to improve land owned by former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak and $2.5 million for what one expert called a “back of the napkin” plan to launch rockets in Northern Michigan. 

“There were a lot of things in there that should not have been passed through, and I think if we had time to parse it out, it wouldn’t have passed through,” Runestad said, noting the quick pace of other lame-duck bills did not allow for “proper due diligence.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he would support rules that only allow lame-duck voting in an emergency situation so lawmakers are “not just rushing through a bunch of bills people don’t want to do in the light of day.”

Personal financial disclosure

Elected officials and candidates for state offices would be required to disclose basic financial information for themselves and family members under a bipartisan bill package advanced in a 6-1 vote last month by the House Elections and Ethics Committee. 

Michigan is one of just two states without any sort of financial disclosure law for state officials, which can help identify potential conflicts of interest for lawmakers who could be asked to vote on legislation impacting their own finances. 

Shirkey voiced opposition to the House plan in May, suggesting that the legislation would discourage qualified residents from running for office. “I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he told reporters at the time, later comparing it to “Kabuki theater.”

Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, is sponsoring the legislation and said he "absolutely" thinks the recent reform push could give new legs to his proposal despite "rhetorical resistance" from Shirkey.  

"Any path that gets us to better accountability and communication with our voters about issues of transparency and accountability is good,"  said LaGrand, who has personally disclosed his own finances and is encouraging other lawmakers to do the same. 

Ethics commission 

Ananich said Wednesday he supports the push for personal financial disclosure rules and would also like to see the state create some type of independent ethics board to evaluate the conduct of elected officials. 

It’s an idea that has come up in early talks about the reform package but would likely require voter approval for a constitutional amendment. At least 42 states -- and the federal government -- have an ethics board with at least some jurisdiction over lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Without an oversight arm, the Michigan Legislature has had a hard time policing its own members in recent years. The House, for instance, had little recourse last year when Rep. Bettie Cook Scott of Detroit stopped showing up to her taxpayer-funded job in August after losing a state Senate primary. 

She continued to earn biweekly paychecks as part of her $71,685 a year salary.

Ananich was not part of initial talks over the larger reform package but said he thinks the ethics board is one of the most exciting concepts and is excited to be part of future discussions. 

“I have been a part of a lot of bill packages that have strange bedfellows, and this would just be another one of those examples,” Ananich said of the potential alliance between Voters Not Politicians, GOP leadership and the Michigan Chamber.

“Outside groups have to figure out their own internal politics, but if someone puts in front of me an ethics package I can live with an I think is positive, I’ll work to get it done and work to try to craft it in a way that’s in the best interest of the public.”

Shirkey, whose primary focus is term limits, welcomed the chance to work with Voters Not Politicians even though he opposed their successful redistricting reform campaign. 

“Even though I viscerally disagreed with what they put on the ballot, I think ultimately their goal was good governance,” he said, “and so we can at least collect ourselves or aggregate ourselves around the concept of good governance, and this is a perfect example of that.”

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Kevin Grand
Mon, 10/28/2019 - 7:10am

All of those items can easily be accomplished without unnecessarily bundling it in with term limits.

Since certain politicians lack the will to bring them up for a vote, they feel that padding their time in Lansing is all of the incentive that they'll need to get the job done.

I very much doubt that Michigan Voters share that sentiment.

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 9:00am

Leave term limits alone, but at the same time, look to a part time legislature which might have the effect of limiting terms if the job is not so lucrative.

Also, what is behind everyone’s desire for personal financial information? If you are looking at who pays who, remember that there is a payer, usually a business, and a payee, usually a politician. Examine the business and you will get the same answer. And what information would be useful? Tax returns? Not really. You want ledgers, and business has ledgers.

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 11:52am

Excellent idea! Part time legislature. Then we would have the money to fix the roads. Yes lets go with that. They always refuse to take a pay cut lets just cut their time. They can't get anything done in the time they have so lets give them less time. They are unable to serve the people with a full time job so now it is time to show them that they could do a better job if they had half the half time! They have done this to Michigan workers so now lets do this to them.

Sat, 11/02/2019 - 8:14am

Sure, why not just get rid of the legislature all together? They work for LOBBISTS anyway, then leave office to become LOBBISTS!

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 10:02am

Let's add this to the mix: majority party lawmaker office budgets are the same as minority party office budgets.

Barry Visel
Mon, 10/28/2019 - 10:42am

A couple more ideas: 1. Rank Order Voting and, 2. Open Primaries.

Jason Reed
Tue, 10/29/2019 - 1:24am

Rank MI Vote, already started a grassroots movement. Search our website for how to stay in contact and help.

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 10:49am

Yes, term limits have been a disaster and for once I agree with the current Senate Majority leader. Senators and Represeantatives really don't get any idea of issues in their short terms and then, at the end of their terms, they file and approve some of the most stupid legislation with little thought, discussion, etc. Education practices in this State are a disaster with legislators pushing tactics for education while they have no or very limited knowledge and expertise in the field.

Open records are needed. I still want to see what was "promised" by Enbridge for the secret approval of the tunnel for oil under the Straits. There was no public discussion, just a quickie by then Gov. Snyder and his minions.

And we need limits on how soon outgoing legislators, governors, and all of their staff can engage in lobbying activities. In the past few months, too many sweetheart deals have emerged with recent former staff of agencies, etc., leading on those deals. There needs to be a two year window in which they cannot engage in lobbying activities after leaving office or the top ranking positions they held.

Finally, , gubernatorial candidates and legislative candidates need to reveal their income and their family income in order to avoid serious and minor conflicts of interest. I seem to recall one former House member continually supporting legislation to help the lumber industry, an industry that was within the person's economic interests. That kind of conflicted behavior needs to end.

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 8:28am

Do you have one bit of evidence of anything you bring up? Do states without term limits have any better results than those who do? Where's the evidence that legislators have enriched themselves without getting caught prosecuted or disgraced and thrown out of office? Is it realistic that legislators not legislate on the industry they're involved in and probably know the most about? How a law preventing government employees of all types from going directly from the government payroll to being legislator? How is this any different?

David Waymire
Tue, 10/29/2019 - 1:50pm

OK...let's look at some evidence. In 2000, when we started this term limit experiment, we ranked in the top 20 in the nation in Median Household Income. Today we are in the bottom 20. In fact, if you look at the 15 states with some sort of term limits, you will see that only 2 are in the top half of states in per capita income...California and Colorado. And in California, you can spend 12 years in one seat...the most you can spend in one seat in Michigan is eight. The other states that have term limits are, by and large, poor and not moving forward: Arkansas (48th in per capita income); Louisiana (47th); Oklahoma (43rd); Missouri (39); Montana (38); Florida (37); Maine (35); Ohio; (33); South Dakota (32); Michigan (31); Arizona (27). Why would we want to associate with the policies being followed by these loser states? It would almost seem like term limit proponents went to poor states with low education and put in place a practice that prevents them from getting better.

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 8:31pm

Dave, you know as well as anyone Michigan starting in the 90's went through an economic implosion as globalism and technology killed many employers and jobs, state term limits had nothing to do with this! Further pointing at states that were or became rich or poor 50 , 100 even 200 years ago before term limits were a thing is again more nonsense as evidence. But likewise we have recent governmental dumpster fire states such as CT, KS or IL without term limits at all! Again the fact still stands there's no great evidence supporting this contention or the other side for that matter.

middle of the mit
Thu, 10/31/2019 - 1:03am

Was that downturn caused by union workers demanding too much money and benefits or was it Patriotic American Corporations thinking those workers added "no value to the product" and sent them jobs to third world hellholes CAUSING GLOBALIZATION? I think you know what I am betting on.

Why? Because people like you tell people like me that if We don't give these "Patriotic American Corporations" tax breaks, they will leave to a different country! LOL!!

Ouch! That has got to hurt!

And to include Kansas in the dumpster fire? Thank the Brownback experiment! That is why they started voting Blue 4 U!

I am not a great proponent of term limits. I believe it ends up giving lobbyists more control of government because the lobbyists will be the only ones that know how things run when newbies get in. That is why we NEED transparency laws and FOIA laws. Otherwise industry and special interests run things. And if the experts in their fields are the experts, why do they want to leave pet coke piles uncovered? Why do we have so many superfund sites in a State surrounded by the worlds greatest concentration of fresh water?

Trust industry? Give me a reason to. There is a reason for truth in advertising laws. And yet the carmakers still put out commercials showing you can go through mountainous streams, rock and boulder encrusted paths on your glorious trip to the top of a mountain.

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 10:48am

As is too often your comment is almost completely off topic as if you didn't read it. Since I see you are up a 1AM diddling on your computer we should be worried. Talk to your doctor.

middle of the mit
Sat, 11/02/2019 - 2:19am

Hey Matt! It's 2am and I am diddling! Call my doctor! My Heritagedoctor!

Not everyone has your schedule. But, you take everyones personal life into account before you judge, don't you? Or is it only your own?

How was my comment off topic? You are saying that MI went through a one State recession in the 90's and it had nothing to do with globalism? WAIT a minute!

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 8:31pm

Dave, you know as well as anyone Michigan starting in the 90's went through an economic implosion as globalism and technology killed many employers and jobs, state term limits had nothing to do with this! ]]

I was replying to YOUR comment.

If you would like to see MY comment on the subject;
middle of the mit

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 12:43am

You would have to scroll to the bottom and I noticed you had nothing to say about that.

Why are you afraid to defend your own words against questions and talking points?

Sat, 11/02/2019 - 8:19am

GOP response to facts, attack the process or attack the PERSON. Ha ha, busted AGAIN.

Cory Johnston
Mon, 10/28/2019 - 10:59am

The right to local municipal public records will be tested in the Michigan Supreme Court as they have accepted the case of Bisio v. City of the Village of Clarkston where the city contends a charter defined official of the city can keep city records from the public and be paid with taxpayer funds to do so. If the Supreme Court agrees with the lower courts, it will give every municipal government in Michigan a way to keep information from the public at the discretion of a few if not all non-elected officials.

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 11:21am

Regardless of your opinion of the POTUS, his desire to "drain the swamp" is certainly admirable, despite what it has cost him. Michigan's "swamp" also needs draining and having an ethics board theoretically could be a good place to start. I was mortified to hear the senator from our district blatantly lying during a committee hearing to get a bill, which was definitely not in the best interest of the citizens of Michigan, passed into law. Money under the table is not going to show up on financial disclosure returns.

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 11:33am

"Regardless of your opinion of the POTUS, his desire to "drain the swamp" is certainly admirable, despite what it has cost him."

He filled his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires, every single one of which is using their position for self-enrichment. He has one of the most corrupt administrations in modern history...

Nick Ciaramitaro
Mon, 10/28/2019 - 11:46am

There are essentially two arguments for term limits: (1) promotion of a "citizen legislator" and (2) the advantages of incumbency.
The first is inappropriate for consideration in a constitution. Whether I want a legislator who is experienced in government or one who brings in new ideas should be my decision and the decision of the voters. The second argument though is valid.
A better way to deal with solving the second problem without slanting the decision of the type of legislator the voters want would be to do what most states who have term limits do. Eliminate the life time ban but require legislators to sit out one or more terms after serving a given number of terms.
Full disclosure I am a former legislator who served 20 years in the House and left the House more than 20 years ago. But whether the Constitution allows me to run for the House again (either by adding to the three term limit (only three of my 10 terms come under the Constitutional limit as the others predated term limits adoption) or opened it up to allowing me to return as I have been out of office for some time) I do not intend to run for the House again.

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 11:56am

Changing or abolishing Term Limits does mandate a vote of the people, and using candy tactics, such as, "state Legislature and governor's office to public records requests", and/or "Reforms to prohibit lawmakers from immediately working as lobbyists"; should be immediately ethically and responsibly done with or without any Term Limit changes.
Term Limits were brought about through the Peoples redress petition efforts and the peoples vote. I'm not voting to change that no matter how much political candy is offered.

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 2:04pm

Good story, but this should be corrected:
"Senate Majority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint"

John Q. Public
Mon, 10/28/2019 - 8:34pm

They're lying to you. I can tell because they're lying politicians. This is a ruse that they will set up deliberately and purposefully with circumvention in mind.

middle of the mit
Thu, 10/31/2019 - 12:43am

Far be it beyond me, but I remember when MI used to be a part time legislature. Then I remember it turning full time and legislators giving themselves a raise at the same time. Maybe someone at Bridge who has better internet skills than me, could address this.

All I know is that it happened and it happened while I was able to vote and according to

[[Michigan State Senate: During every year from 1992-2013, the Republican Party was the majority in the Michigan State Senate. The Michigan State Senate is one of 13 state senates that was Republican for more than 80 percent of the years between 1992-2013. For the final three years of the study Michigan was under Republican trifectas. ]]

Couldn't have happened without their approval. And as you are seeing and reading they had a full 8 years to deal with this, and yet they still do not want to subject themselves to Transparency.

Opaqueness is the name of their game. An aura of transparency. It looks transparent, but you still can't see what's going on.

If you are willing to use it as a shower curtain or glass, it isn't transparent.

You think that is how the publics business should be run?

What will you say if you lose power?

Sat, 11/02/2019 - 8:32am

"What will you say if you lose power?" Easy, "It's not fair!" You might cry and scream like Kavanaugh and Graham.

We see the reaction right now when the governor is using Engler rules regarding the budget and the Dems using Boehner's impeachment rules right now. LMAO

GOP Careful what you wish for, oh and Moscow Mitch, wait until the Dems employ your tactics.....

You know what they say about karma. It's a....