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Bipartisan group seeks to revamp term limits, demand financial disclosure

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A ballot proposal would shorten Michigan’s term-limit law from a total of 14 years in the House and Senate to a 12-year total. But lawmakers would be allowed to serve in a single chamber longer. (Screenshot)

LANSING—A bipartisan coalition wants to amend the Michigan Constitution to make changes to term limits for state lawmakers and subject statewide elected officials to personal financial disclosure.

The group, Voters for Transparency and Term Limits, includes business and labor leaders, Republicans and Democrats. It unveiled the ballot proposal Tuesday to bring “financial transparency” and “more effective” term limits to state government, in hopes it could go before voters in November, according to its press release.

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Talk of financial disclosure and term-limit reforms has been brewing in Lansing for years, but legislation has stalled. 

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Bills requiring personal financial disclosures advanced in the Michigan House last year, but have been slow to gain traction in the Senate. Senate Oversight Committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, told Bridge Michigan last month he is working to amend House-proposed ethics reform, which could include financial disclosure requirements.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has resisted such requirements, arguing the practice would discourage qualified candidates from running. He has also been a longtime critic of the cap on legislative tenures in Michigan and has indicated he wants to abolish or lengthen the limits.

On term limits, the proposed constitutional amendment would shorten the maximum time people can serve in the legislature from 14 years to 12. But it would also allow lawmakers to spend those years in a single chamber. 

Currently, Michigan lawmakers can serve up to six years — or three two-year terms — in the House and up to eight years — or two four-year terms — in the Senate. The 14-year max in the legislature is already one of the most stringent among the 15 states with legislative term limits.

All sitting and newly elected lawmakers would be subject to the new limit if it is approved by voters in November.

Coalition members Jace Bolger, a Republican former Michigan House Speaker, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, argue the current term limits in Michigan — established in 1992 — have brought “unintended consequences,” forcing legislators to seek another position after six or eight years. The current law has led to high turnovers in the Michigan Legislature, with a 66-percent turnover in the Senate in 2019 — the largest among all states.

The ballot proposal would allow legislators to focus on listening to constituents in one chamber, instead of constantly planning to run for their next gig, Bolger argued during a press conference Tuesday. 

“Citizens call the representative to have their voice heard,” Bolger said. “However, too many times, a bureaucrat will ignore that voice and seek to wait out a short-time legislature.”

Duggan said it is “disconcerting” some House members use their elected office as “stepping stones” to the Senate.

The coalition proposal would allow elected officials to “focus on doing the people’s business and not immediately be looking at your next job,” he said.

The coalition also includes labor union Unite Here Local 24 President Nia Winston and former Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley.

The measure is already drawing concerns. Nicolas Tomboulides, executive director of advocacy group U.S. Term Limits, said on social media the characterization of the ballot measure campaign as reducing term limits is “fraudulent.” The practical effect of the measure, he said in a tweet, is to “double term limits for House members (without informing voters).”

The other pillar of the ballot proposal would subject statewide elected officials — including lawmakers, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state and the state attorney general — to the same personal financial disclosure requirements required of members of Congress under the Federal Ethics in Government Act of 1978. 

Michigan and Idaho are the only two states that do not require elected or appointed public officials or lawmakers to disclose personal financial information. Proponents say disclosure will reveal or help guard against officials voting or making decisions on matters in which they have a personal financial interest.  

Under the measure, officials must file an annual financial disclosure and periodic financial transaction reports with the Department of State, according to the proposal language. 

They must disclose their assets, all forms of income, purchases, sales or exchanges of property or security, liabilities, positions held outside their elected office, arrangements regarding future employment, continuing benefits from former employers other than the state and payments and gifts received.

If approved by voters, lawmakers would have to enact aligned legislation. The measure would allow any Michigan resident to sue if the Legislature does not comply.

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“Michigan government doesn’t become hampered by more information, by more disclosure by folks that are in it,” said Mark Gaffney, former president of AFL-CIO and member of the Wayne State Board of Governors. “It becomes better.”

Coalition members did not directly answer Tuesday where the funding for the petition drive would come from. The organization must collect at least 425,059 signatures by July 11 to place the measure on the November ballot. 

Coalition spokesperson Andrea Bitely did not directly answer when asked if the ballot committee campaign will reject funds from “dark money” groups — nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors. More than 90 percent of the money raised for other active ballot measures in Michigan come from dark money groups, a Bridge Michigan analysis has found.

“We have set up a ballot committee and will disclose as is required by law,” she said in an email.

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