Michigan lawmakers moving to weaken term limits on themselves
Voters overwhelmingly passed term limits on state leaders in 1992. Now some state leaders are pushing voters to give them more time in office.
Michigan lawmakers are looking to increase the number of years they are able to serve, an effort to change a decades-old populist reform.
In 1992, Michigan’s voters approved term limits for legislators. The Michigan State Office Amendment changed the state’s Constitution to only allow two terms for those elected governor, attorney general, secretary of state, or as a state senator. Three terms were allowed those elected to the state House.
At the time, former governors James Blanchard, a Democrat, and John Engler, a Republican, opposed the amendment. Blanchard argued the term limit would mean legislators “are not in Lansing long enough to build up relationships of trust.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, wants to increase the limits. “Term limits are a problem in Michigan, and I’m planning on thinking about this and processing it until I come up with a suggestion or a solution,” Shirkey said in May. “I don’t have a solution right now. I just know it’s a problem.” Republican leaders are reportedly looking into extending term limits from the current maximum of 14 years between the two chambers to 20 years. They argue that the limits institutionalize inexperience.
State legislators are currently subject to term limits in only 15 states. Voters in six other states approved term limits only to have them repealed by their state legislatures or overturned by the courts. Michigan’s term limits are comparatively strict: It and five other states impose lifetime term limits rather than just for consecutive terms.
Shirkey and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, have been meeting with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Voters Not Politicians to develop a plan to extend term limits. VNP drove the 2018 redistricting reform that would put a thus-far undefined citizen process in charge of redistricting rather than the legislative majority. Conservatives have expressed concern that Shirkey and Chatfield are working with the progressive VNP, while VNP supporters question their willingness to work with Republican legislators.
One option would increase limits in exchange for new rules such as increased financial disclosure or a cooling-off period before legislators could serve as lobbyists. Both measures are good ethical guidelines that could be standalone issues, rather than used to get Michiganders to reverse themselves on an issue that was placed on the ballot by about 400,000 voter signatures and passed by nearly 60% despite the campaign being outspent 2-1.
Patrick Anderson, an economist who helped write the 1992 amendment, said term limits have worked to make Michigan government more diverse, with women governors, attorneys general and secretaries of state being elected for the first time. He predicted voters would reject changes to the limits.
“One of the reasons we wanted to have term limits in Michigan was to open the door for people who traditionally had a very difficult time getting a shot at running in an open seat,” Anderson said. “And on this one criteria, term limits has been a smashing success. We clearly opened a door.”
Either super-majority votes in the House and Senate or a petition drive gathering more than 425,000 voter signatures could put term limit changes on the ballot. In any case, voters would have the final say on whether term limits have served Michigan well for the past few decades.