My Take: Ask the tough questions on term limits petition

·3 min read
The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.
The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.

Michigan’s voters may soon see petitions on an announced ballot drive to amend the state constitution to reduce legislative term limits. A seemingly bipartisan coalition with powerful backers is proposing to replace the current system, where legislators can serve six years in the state House and eight in the state Senate, with a flexible 12-year total limit.

Politicians could serve 12 years in the state House, 12 in the state Senate, or 12 years in any combination of the two. The proposal also includes some common-sense financial disclosure rules for state elected officials, although this seems unrelated to the core term-limits question. If the backers gather a few hundred thousand signatures over the next few months, voters could decide the issue this fall.

More: Ballot drive: Change term limits, require financial reports

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Michigan’s term limits have been around for three decades. In that time, politics has grown increasingly nasty, bitter and partisan. Proponents of changing Michigan’s term limits seek to link this unfortunate trend to the adoption of term limits. But before supporting the petition and backing a loosening of term limits, voters should look at the proposal and ask the tough questions about Michigan’s term limits and Michigan’s politics.

Would you be better off if our state Legislature was more like the U.S. Congress? The opponents of term limits suggest that if elected officials spend more time in office they will become more chummy with their fellow career politicians and be able to get things done. Congress lacks term limits and has a history of long-serving politicians. And yet Congress is notoriously ineffective, particularly over the past decade. The last Gallup Poll has Congress at a paltry 20 percent approval rating. If you’re among the vast majority of Americans that don’t think Congress is doing a good job, you might not assume that simply making the Michigan Legislature more like Congress will solve our problems.

In this Feb. 12, 2019 file photo, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, watches during the State of the State address at the state Capitol in Lansing. A company owned by Shirkey and one run by U.S. Senate candidate John James each received between $1 million and $2 million from a federal rescue program that was created to preserve jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.
In this Feb. 12, 2019 file photo, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, watches during the State of the State address at the state Capitol in Lansing. A company owned by Shirkey and one run by U.S. Senate candidate John James each received between $1 million and $2 million from a federal rescue program that was created to preserve jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Do you want to keep these people in office? If term limits are lifted or extended, we could keep these particular politicians longer. There have been plenty of scandals in recent years for both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature such that all sides would have reason to be skeptical. If you’re repulsed by our current crop of elected officials, then extending how long they serve might be counter-productive.

Who is funding this effort? Voters have a real interest in knowing who is funding referendums. If political ads warning that term limits just empower lobbyists turn out to be paid for by those same lobbyists, voters might question the truth of the ad. Political analysts are predicting that the term limits repeal will be paid for by "dark money" that will conceal the ultimate source. While you should still evaluate the proposal on its own merits, the money could be a reason to be skeptical of the initiative.

Are term limits really the problem? Michigan has a divided government, with a Democratic governor and Republican Legislature that have deep policy disagreements that are different from their personal clashes. It seems unlikely that extending the state senators' terms will change their minds on abortion or change Gov. Whitmer's mind on tax cuts.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attends a press conference to speak on the $400 auto insurance refund checks Monday, March 7, 2022, at Grand Rapids Community College.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attends a press conference to speak on the $400 auto insurance refund checks Monday, March 7, 2022, at Grand Rapids Community College.

And even if the state was united under one party's government, you still might not like the policy outcomes. Whether you think Texas is crazy or New York is dysfunctional (or both), those two states lack legislative term limits and are unified under one party's control. It’s likely that you disagree with the policies coming out of at least one of those states and decry the partisanship of the majority party, even though they lack term limits.

Maybe term limits are neither the problem nor the solution. It's possible that the country is much more partisan and divided right now, and the length of time someone spends in Lansing won't change that. Fixing our country, our state, and our politics will require fixing our culture and its divisions.

— J.C. Miller is an attorney, author and father living in Ottawa County, Michigan.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: My Take: Ask the tough questions on term limits petition