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Proposal 1 is an effort to deal with term limit complaints

Wide view of the state capitol building. It is lit up by the sun, with blue sky behind, and the building is framed by trees in the foreground
Carlos Osorio/AP
The state capitol building in Lansing, Mich.

Proposal One on the November 8th ballot is an attempt to deal with two complaints about the Legislature.

The first is that too many lawmakers are too inexperienced to effectively do the jobs they were elected to do. The second complaint is lawmakers currently don’t have to disclose their finances, which could reveal conflicts of interest.

Because knowledge and relationships equal power in Lansing, critics say the 30-year-old voter-approved term limits amendment hasn’t worked out as hoped. Term limits shifted the knowledge and experience from elected lawmakers to political parties, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

“Well, like most other areas of life, people who have served longer and know what’s been tried before tend be better at crafting problem-solving solutions,” said political science professor Matt Grossman, the director of the Michigan State University Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. “And most of the research on term limits has indicated that that has been true for state legislatures as well.”

“So term limits tend to make states more likely to follow national partisan trends, to follow, to copy policies from other states, to be less innovative in creating their state-specific policies.”

Michigan already has some of the strictest term limits in the country. Lawmakers can serve three two-year terms in the state House and two four-year terms in the state Senate.

That’s a total of 14 years. Proposal One would allow legislators to serve up to 12 years – fewer years in total but they could choose to serve all those years in one chamber.

Alexis Wiley is a leader of the vote yes on Proposal One campaign. She said Proposal One would keep term limits intact, but would still help lawmakers give constituents what they want.

“They want you to become an expert, they want you to be focused, they want to get the best level of service possible, but they also don’t want you to overstay your welcome,” Wiley said.

It’s hard to measure the impact of term limits in Michigan against an alternative reality that never occurred. But the Citizens Research Council of Michigan did an analysis that focused largely on budget decisions. During the term limits era, cuts to higher education and local government spending got bigger. The analysis called local government “the big loser” under term limits.

The CRC study also says term limits may be a contributing factor to political polarization because elected officials may put party loyalty over policymaking. Also, lawmakers are more prone to delay tough choices as they set their sights on new offices:

“First, with a term-limited legislature there has been a desire to delay hard decisions until a legislator is out of office (kicking the can down the road). Second, there is an increase in partisan polarization. While this is true in Congress and in other states with and without term limits, it is heightened by term limits. Finally, Michigan’s term-limited legislators are much more politically ambitious than were their predecessors.”

The other part of Proposal One is financial disclosure. It’s a sweetener to help win over skeptical voters. But Alexis Wiley of the “vote yes” campaign says it is a long-overdue reform.

“Michigan is one of the only two states in the entire country that doesn’t require financial disclosure of our state electeds across the board” said Wiley with the Proposal One campaign. “That’s something that has to be changed. It’s only us and Idaho.”

The financial disclosure requirement would also apply to the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. The proposal would not change the eight-year term limits on those offices.

Proposal One appears to be enjoying solid support. A poll done for WDIV-TV and The Detroit News by the Glengariff Group showed 61.6 percent support among the voters surveyed.

But opponents of Proposal One say changing term limits won’t fix Lansing’s problems. One voter who’s not buying into the Proposal One message is Patrick Anderson. He helped write the 1992 term limits amendment.

“I find it quite hypocritical for legislators, in particular, that are claiming that they are leading advocates and effective people who are fighting for the taxpayers on one hand and then are saying, we really need to stay in office longer because we can’t figure out what we’re doing,” he said.

Anderson says another reason to be skeptical is Proposal One is the only question on the ballot this year that was not the result of a petition campaign. It’s on the ballot because super-majorities of the House and the Senate voted to put it there.