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In surprise, term limit, disclosure reform heads to Michigan ballot in November

trojan horse in front of Michigan Capitol
A billboard parked outside the Michigan Capitol on Tuesday slammed a reform proposal approved by lawmakers. The mobile billboard leads to a website run by U.S. Term Limits, a Washington, D.C.-based group seeking to keep Michigan’s current term limits and campaigning against the ballot proposal.

LANSING — Michigan voters in November will decide whether to change the state constitution to relax term limits and strengthen financial disclosure rules for elected officials, after the Legislature voted Tuesday to place the issue directly on the ballot.

Without debate, lawmakers in both chambers passed a resolution allowing the measure to skip requirements that backers gather more than 425,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot — a move that critics say will save organizers millions of dollars.

Sponsor

“Essentially the Legislature is planning to give the lobbyists running this campaign the equivalent of $5 (million) to $7 million that they would have needed for the petitions, now they will have that (money) to use campaigning,” said Scott Tillman, national field director for U.S. Term Limits, a national group advocating for term limits at every level of government. 

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“It's a huge legislative giveaway and a direct conflict of interest for all the seated legislators,” Tillman said in a Monday email.

The votes came a day after a bipartisan coalition that pushed the petition measure, Voters for Transparency and Term Limits, hosted a press conference urging lawmakers to act

The group is led by legislative powerbrokers including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Rich Studley, the retired president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and Mark Gaffney, the former leader of the AFL-CIO.

At least three other constitutional amendment proposals also seek to be placed on the November ballot, but must abide by signature requirements that are more costly this year because of a worker shortage and inflation.

“By putting transparency and term limit reform on the ballot in November, they are allowing the people of Michigan to play an important role in moving our state forward,” Voters for Transparency and Term Limits said in a statement Tuesday.

The approved legislative resolution would allow lawmakers to serve up to a total 12 years, regardless of which chamber they are in.

Currently, state lawmakers can serve up to six years in the House and eight years in the Senate, a requirement that makes Michigan’s law among the strictest of the 15 states with term limits.

Under the resolution, however, most incumbents could remain in their chambers for longer with the exception of members elected to the Senate this year. 

The proposal also would require state elected officials — including governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and legislators — to disclose personal financial information such as sources of income and assets. 

Michigan is one of the only two states that do not currently require lawmakers to disclose any such information.

House spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro said legislative leaders for weeks have discussed the proposal, which followed years of failed efforts to amend term limits that Michigan voters approved in 1992.

Lawmakers needed to restore public trust after scandals involving former House Speaker Lee Chatfield and others, said Sen. Ed McBroom, a Vulcan Republican and champion of the measures.

“The time to do this was becoming urgent,” McBroom said. “The danger of breaking more trust could lead to other proposals … that might not even be functional.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a Tuesday statement the resolution strikes a “reasonable balance” between transparency and stringent rules that might discourage “good folks from running for office.” 

“By enabling lawmakers to serve out all their time in one chamber, even if for an overall shorter period of 12 years instead of the current 14, individuals would be free to focus on issues that are important to the communities they represent rather than on their next career move,” Shirkey said of the term limits.

While critics say the term limit law is too strict and failed to deter career politicians from seeking office, polls suggest it is still popular among Michigan voters. 

Tuesday’s vote was an “ambush,” said Patrick Anderson, who helped draft Michigan’s term limits law in 1992 and is a member of the Term Limits Defense Fund. The issue did not appear on the tentative agenda for the Legislature until Tuesday morning, and the resolution language was not publicly available until close to the vote.

“The idea of the Legislature ambushing the citizens is a disgrace,” Anderson told Bridge Michigan. “The stench of this is going to last all the way to November.”

Following the vote, a Trojan horse was parked outside the state Capitol atop a trailer with a billboard slamming the proposal.

“DON’T FALL for the LOBBYISTS’ Term Limits Scam. It’s a Trap!” it read.

The proposal was approved 76-28 in the Michigan House and 26-6 in the Senate. Some lawmakers voted against the proposal because they oppose term limits.

“We were losing a lot of institutional knowledge,” said Rep. Sue Allor, a three-term Wolverine Republican who voted no. “I feel that it’s up to the voter to do term limits through the ballot box, by voting.”

Weakened disclosure rules

Despite similarities to the petition language, the personal financial disclosure requirements approved by the Legislature appear weaker than those pushed by the petition group. 

Among other things, the measure approved by the Legislature would: 

  • Only require officials to disclose descriptions of assets and “sources” of income. The petition drive would have required disclosure of ​​“assets and unearned income” and “earned income.”
  • Only require officials to adhere to state law and report payments from registered lobbyists. The petition drive would have made them disclose all gifts, travel payments and reimbursements that officials received.

Lawmakers also removed a provision from the petition that would have held state officials to the same disclosure standards as Congress.

McBroom told reporters Tuesday that stricter requirements could discourage qualified candidates.

“You have a lot of people who are running for office who still have to maintain (their) business,” he said. “To be disclosing everything about that business may be, one, harmful to that business, and therefore, dissuasive on good people running for office.”

McBroom said tying the proposed constitutional amendment to state law makes it easier for legislators to update the laws. Had lawmakers laid out specifics in the constitutional amendment, he said, changes would require support from two-thirds of lawmakers or another ballot petition.

“It’s unwise to bake in super, super detailed law into your constitution,” he said. “(Constitutions) are a framework and then you have laws, and then when something doesn’t work, when there’s a problem with a law, the voters can demand it be changed.”

That means that if state law on lobbyist disclosures were to change in the future and abolish lobbyist disclosure requirements on gifts and travel payments, for instance, lawmakers wouldn’t have to make any of those disclosures either.

D’Assandro, the House spokesperson, told Bridge no other state directly applies the congressional standards, which he said do not necessarily apply to Michigan lawmakers.

Members of Congress, for instance, are required to disclose stocks because they have access to information that could “manipulate” the market, D’Assandro said. Michigan lawmakers don’t have that power.

“Here, a state rep is more likely to have a day job and be a legislator,” D’Assandro said. “The rules here maybe have more to do with secondary income or positions.”

Sponsor

The term limits petition group supports the changes, said campaign spokesperson Josh Pugh.

“The current language requires state officials to disclose their sources of income, holdings, trips and gifts from lobbyists, which is the right standard that makes all conflicts of interest transparent,” Pugh wrote in a text.

Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, voted against the resolution, saying disclosure rules “did not go far enough.”

“We are simply saying, ‘We are going to pass a slimdown version of personal financial disclosure. We are going to tie that with the allure of less overall years to serve in the state Legislature in the hopes that people would accept it,’” Aiyash said.

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