Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the Michigan Constitution was amended to impose term limits on those elected to govern our state. A governor may now only serve two four-year terms.
Same for the secretary of state and attorney general. A state senator also may not serve more than two four-year terms. A state representative is term limited to three terms of two years each.
After that, they are barred for life from serving in those positions again. There are lots of good reasons not to like term limits. Placing a premium on inexperience is one. Providing an incentive for lawmakers to run for higher office from the day they are first elected is another.
Last week’s passage of bills to “fix” the roads provides a particularly powerful illustration of what’s wrong with this system. First of all: Term limits encourage legislators to kick cans down the road.
Case in point: Two thirds of the legislators (73 Republicans and 2 Democrats) who voted for the $1.2 billion-a-year road fix will have departed Lansing by the time the fuel tax and registration fee increases they approved last week actually begin generating substantial revenue for road repairs in 2018.
Governor Rick Snyder, who is expected to sign the bill this week, will also be term-limited out of office at the end of 2018, at the end of his second four-year term. Moreover, the enormous diversion of the $600 million from the state’s general fund that is supposed to pay for half the cost of road repairs won’t start until 2019, after Snyder and most of the legislators who approved the road fix will have left office. (The first slice is estimated at $356 million.)
In other words, the lawmakers who just voted for the road bill package won’t have to face the voters who will be angered by the cuts that the state will make to Medicaid benefits, schools and colleges and universities. That’s the great thing about can kicking: You don’t have to face up to the consequences of what you did while you’re in office.
Someone else will, someday, when the cost of dealing with those consequences will be much worse than they would be now.
Maybe the financial planning embedded in the bill will work out the way the mostly-Republican legislative majority figures. They’ve produced economic forecasts that predict enormous growth in state revenues they think will be generated – without tax increases – by a rapidly growing state economy.
Except for one thing: Any plan that risks dismembering the state’s main source of funding on growth projections 10 years out is silly. Michigan has, indeed, been experiencing good growth in recent years, mostly because the auto industry is thriving.
But that industry is captive to the business cycle, and anybody who believes that today’s good times are certain to run into 2019 may have been testing the not-yet-legal recreational use of marijuana.
You can’t count on good times continuing, in other words. There’s another problem with the institutional can-kicking embedded in the road bill: What responsible politician is going to want to run for governor or the legislature when big general fund cuts start to bite?
Who wants to preside over a state in the process of dismembering much of the social structure – good schools, essential services – that has sustained a good quality of life in Michigan?
Sure, there are a few who are proud advocates for throttling the “evil monster” of government, “drowning it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist put it. But that is a winning ideology only as long as times are flush – and voters fail to notice that poor people’s health is deteriorating and Michigan kids are not learning as much as they used to.
The cry to fix the roads peaked two years ago – tellingly, in the middle of a hard winter – when Gov. Snyder pointed out the roads were a disaster and urged an extra $1.2 billion to fix them.
Virtually everybody who drives much has since discovered the cost of flat tires, alignments and wheel rims bent by monster potholes. Media folks (including me, to be sure) made grave pronouncements about how essential it was to fix the damn roads.
What few wanted to face at the time was figuring out how the road repair bill was going to be paid. Yes, $1.2 billion is a lot of money, and nobody figured even legislative geniuses could find that much in a $9 billion general fund without inflicting lots of pain.
Indeed, there is no way to do that. But that’s not my problem say lots of lawmakers, who – once again – have successfully managed to kick the can down the road.