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Michigan term limit ballot proposal is under fire as ‘misleading.’ Is it?

lansing
A new ballot measure that would alter Michigan’s system of term limits has sparked division over whether it improves the legislative process. (Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com)

LANSING—Would a recently-launched Michigan ballot proposal increase or reduce term limits for state legislators? 

Depends on how you look at it. 

Voters for Transparency and Term Limits — a bipartisan petition group seeking to amend the state Constitution — notes, correctly, that the measure lowers the overall time an official can serve in the Legislature, from 14 years to 12. 

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But backers of Michigan’s current term-limit law say the ballot measure would allow legislators to serve longer in whichever chamber they are elected to. That, too, is correct.  

Under Michigan’s current term limit rules, established in 1992, state 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. A lawmaker who hits the term limit in one chamber can choose to run in the other chamber. 

Not everyone is in favor of the current term limits. In 1992, the term-limit law won approval from 59 percent of voters, while the other 41 percent voted against it. 

Critics of the current term-limit rules have argued that the relatively short tenures in the House or Senate prevent lawmakers from developing real expertise before they must leave. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in 2019 he would like to eliminate or lengthen the term limits, arguing elections served as “natural term limits.”

The constitutional amendment proposal would replace that system and instead allow a future lawmaker to serve a maximum 12 years in either the House or Senate. Incumbents in the current Legislature would be excluded from that rule, instead allowed to serve the maximum number of years in their respective chamber. 

Additionally, the proposed ballot measure would subject statewide elected officials — such as the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and lawmakers — to stricter personal financial disclosure rules. 

Petition supporters have argued the proposal would strengthen transparency laws in Michigan and create a standardized ceiling on legislative terms. The overall 12-year cap, they argue, lowers the current maximum of 14 years combined between both chambers.

“Our belief is that imposing a number-of-year limit is simpler, it’s straightforward, and would impose a standard that is across-the-board same for everyone, and (the limit) will be in total fewer,” campaign spokesperson Joshua Pugh told Bridge Michigan after the state Board of Canvassers approved the petition summary and its format Wednesday.

But opponents say the petitioners are “misleading” voters by arguing the measure lowers the cap on legislative terms. Critics argue the proposal would allow House and Senate members to serve almost double the length of their current term limits, therefore giving incumbents more time to build up political influence, and allow former legislators who were termed-out to run again for their previous position.

“We and the majority of Michigan citizens are going to be against a repeal of the current term limits and a replacement with one that would allow both current legislators to serve up to twice as long and former legislators to come back,” Patrick Anderson, who helped draft the language of current term limit laws in 1992, told Bridge on Wednesday.

Michigan’s 14-year overall cap already is among the strictest in 15 states with legislative term limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those backing the ballot measure argue the current rules force legislators to constantly plan for their next gig and resulted in high turnover in the Legislature, whereas the petition would allow incumbents to stay longer in a single chamber and focus on doing their jobs. 

The proposed 12-year term limits would mirror the systems in California and Oklahoma. Mark Gaffney, co-chair of the petition group, told the Board of Canvassers on Wednesday the goal is not to “repeal” term limits as Anderson argued, but to produce “better legislators.”

“We would have better legislators under this configuration,” Gaffney said Wednesday. “I believe that this proposal maintains term limits. Overall, it changes the total time that can be served, it allows more time in one chamber and changes the formulas, but the actual number of years that legislators can serve is reduced.”

But critics say the turnover is exactly the point of term limits — to create more opportunities for newcomers. 

“Term limits make sure that every so often there is an open seat … so people run up against those incumbents at those intervals,” said Scott Tillman, national field director for U.S. Term Limits. 

The petition would give incumbents more advantage as their time in the chamber grows, making it harder for corruption to be exposed, he argued. The reason lawmakers, staffers and consultants are coming forward against former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who is being investigated following accusations of sexual assault and financial improprieties, Tillman said, is because Chatfield is no longer in power.

“Nobody is covering up corruption for their boss because their boss is going to be gone,” Tillman said. “You’ll still have corruption, but it gets exposed very quickly.”

Kurt O’Keefe, a bankruptcy attorney who is working with Tillman and Anderson against the petition, told Bridge the measure would not produce “better legislators” like Gaffney argued.

“You will not have better legislators,” O’Keefe said. “You will have the same legislators for twice as long basically in the House.”

Tillman and O’Keefe told Bridge they are both members of “Don’t Touch Term Limits,” a Michigan coalition that toured around the state in support of term limit rules with a giant pig sculpture in 2019. The coalition has not formed a ballot question committee, but Tillman suggested Wednesday he may start raising funds to campaign against the ballot measure.

“I’ll probably go to U.S. Term Limits and ask them if they’ll be willing to help us fundraise,” Tillman said.

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