… and, despite a key state legislator’s interest in tweaking them, they’re almost certain to stay that way, at least for the time being.
Why can’t term limits for Michigan lawmakers and other officeholders be altered, extended, or done away with completely? Three reasons, really:
- Nobody dares undertake an effort to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, because it would take too much time and money with little chance of success even if it’s put before the voters. That means only the Legislature, by a 2/3 majority vote in each chamber, could put such a measure before the electorate. That’s unlikely to happen because …
- Virtually every legislator in Lansing is there for one reason — term limits. All their predecessors were termed out of office, giving the present-day occupants a chance to serve. Moreover, many current lawmakers have championed term limits in their campaigns; to now do an about-face and claim that, since they’ve gotten themselves elected, they’d like to stay longer would be the very definition of rank hypocrisy.
- The easiest way for a political party in the minority to regain a majority is to win open seats when they occur, and nothing creates a greater number of open seats faster than term limits. For example, the only reason state House Democrats, now in a 16-seat hole, have a chance to win control of their chamber this year is because more than 40 seats are open due to term limits, and the vast majority of those are held by Republicans whose successor nominees are exposed to defeat by Democratic challengers. Does a minority party want to “lock in” its opponents in the majority party to lengthy tenures with few vacancies should term limits be extended or rescinded? No way.
Nevertheless, state Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-Alto), chair of the state House Elections Committee, contends the time has come for ACTION. The daughter of a former Lieutenant Governor and Senate Majority Leader, Lyons announced recently that before the end of this year’s “lame duck” session of the Legislature she plans to hold two hearings on revising Michigan’s constitutional term limit provisions.
Lyons is term-limited herself after this session and is currently running for Kent County Clerk, which was a political stepping stone for Terri Land, who later was elected Michigan’s Secretary of State. Six House Joint Resolutions dealing with the subject of term limits have been referred to Lyons’s committee.
Michigan was part of a term limits movement that swept across the nation between 1990 and 2000. During that decade, 21 states adopted some form of term limits. Every state that permitted state constitutional amendments to be placed on the ballot by initiative petition adopted state legislative term limits during that decade. No new states have adopted state legislative term limits since 2000. Four of those 21 states that once had term limits have had them thrown out by their state Supreme Courts. Only two states adopted term limits statutorily (not by constitutional amendment); in both those states, term limits have since been repealed by a subsequent legislature.
Today, only 15 states still have state legislative term limits. Michigan was one of those states whose voters approved a constitutional amendment (in 1992) that had been placed on the statewide ballot by initiative petition. In Michigan, this “Proposal B” was adopted by a healthy 58% “Yes” vote.
Michigan’s Proposal B imposed term limits not only on state senators and representatives but on future Michigan Governors, Lieutenant Governors, Secretaries of State, and Attorneys General. Individuals elected to those executive branch offices can serve only for two four-year terms. Filling a vacancy counts as one full term only if the partial term is for more than half of a normal four-year term for that office. Term limits for these statewide offices are a lifetime limit for each office.
Proposal B also attempted to impose term limits on Michigan’s two U.S. Senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives (Members of Congress). Both U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives were to be limited under Proposal B to serve no more than 12 years in any 24-year period. However, the U.S. Supreme Court (in the case of U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, decided in 1995) ruled that a Missouri constitutional amendment similar to Michigan’s was unconstitutional and invalid. The high bench ruled that a state constitution could not impose qualifications for candidates for the U.S. Congress stricter than those imposed on U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives as specified in the U.S. Constitution. So term limits in Proposal B for federal lawmakers in the Michigan Constitution are unenforceable and invalid.
The greatest impact of term limits in Michigan is on its state legislature. State senators are limited to serving two four-year terms. State representatives are limited to serving three two-year terms. Lawmakers elected to fill vacancies and who serve more than half a full term have that partial term count as one full term for that office. As with the executive branch offices, term limits are a lifetime limit for that office on any lawmaker.
Bob LaBrant of Lansing’s Sterling Corporation has trolled the national term limits landscape. LaBrant has concluded that it’s clear state legislative term limits across the country were NOT created equal. Michigan, he notes, became one of only six states that, between 1990 and 2000, bore the brunt of this “lifetime ban” inequity. Most states with legislative term limits were merely limits on lawmakers serving consecutive terms.
In Ohio, for example, a legislator can serve four two-year terms in the state House. That legislator is then required to “sit out” for four years before s/he can run again for the state House and serve four more two-year terms. Or a termed-out state representative can run and serve two four-year terms in the state Senate and, after completing eight years in the Senate, that senator can then run again for the state House. Such a limit on consecutive terms of office is the norm among states adopting state legislative term limits. “Lifetime bans” on ever serving again in either the House or Senate after a lawmaker is initially “termed-out” are simply not part of the equation. Interestingly, one of the six bills in Lyons’s committee — HJR X, sponsored by state Rep Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) — would transform Michigan into the Ohio term limit model.
Back in the 1990s, three states had the most draconian state legislative term limits provisions — California, Arkansas, and, as you might expect, Michigan. In all three states, service in the state House was for three two-year terms and, in the state Senate, for two four-year terms. All three states imposed lifetime limits on service in each legislative chamber.
But California and Arkansas have “re-thought” their versions of term limits. Only Michigan has not.
In 2012, California voters (after lawmakers put the proposal on the ballot) amended their constitution to allow a state legislator to spend all 12 years of a lifetime limit (down from the previous 14-year total) in either legislative chamber. All 12 years could be spent in the state Assembly, or all 12 years in the state senate, or the 12 years could be split between the two chambers. Fittingly, Rep. Jeff Farrington (R-Utica) has introduced HJR C to extend term limits in both the House and Senate to 12 years in each chamber. However, Farrington would provide for an expansion to a total of 24 years of combined legislative service rather than being limited to the 12-year total in the new California model.
In 2014, Arkansas voters amended their Constitution similar to California’s 2012 change, but they increased their lifetime limit total from 14 years to 16 years. Under the new amendment, all 16 years can be served in the state House or all 16 years in the state Senate, or the 16 years can be split between the two chambers. Rep. McBroom to the rescue again — his HJR W would change Michigan over to the Arkansas term limit model.
What these two developments mean is that now Michigan ALONE has the most draconian state legislative term limits in the nation.
What California and Arkansas will likely see in the future is that legislators, particularly in the lower chamber, will gain more experience before achieving committee and caucus leadership positions.
Arkansas and California solons will be less likely to chair committees in their very first term in office. Leadership ladders, which were common in Lansing before term limits was imposed, may return. Only after a few terms of serving on a committee and demonstrating knowledge and leadership will legislators receive committee chairmanships. They are also likely to see legislators acquiring specialized expertise on issues that those legislators did not have before they were first elected.
Freshmen legislators will not be out organizing leadership campaigns to run for Speaker at the end of their rookie season. Legislators may be less inclined to plot as aggressively their paths to that next office in attempts to prolong their political careers.
Senior legislators may be more inclined to mentor newer members. Legislators may actually meet and work with lawmakers from across the aisle since legislative service will extend beyond a mere six years. Bipartisan friendships may even become more normal.
The seemingly unquenchable demand to raise campaign dollars for leadership races and their next office may be mitigated. In sum, legislative organization (an oxymoron?), leadership, and the culture itself may change. For lobbyists, developing relationships with individual legislators — not just the leadership — may return with the replacement of the six-year revolving door of constant new state House faces. This would be a reasonable reform for the Michigan legislature and, arguably, for the citizenry as well.
Bear in mind: no state has ever given voter approval to an outright repeal of legislative term limits. Also, current polling shows Michigan voters are not inclined to totally repeal term limits.
Nevertheless, Rep. Charles Smiley (D-Burton) has introduced HJR Q to scuttle term limits not just for legislators (state and federal), but for statewide executive branch officials as well. McBroom has introduced still another measure, HJR V, to repeal term limits only for legislators, keeping intact term limits on statewide officers. Both of these ideas look like non-starters, but the California and Arkansas term limit modifications might serve as a reform model winnable at the ballot box.
As mentioned, a joint resolution must pass by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate for a constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot. In the alternative to legislative action, an initiative petition drive would be required to collect valid signatures equal to at least 10% of the total vote cast for governor in the most recent election (in the neighborhood of 350,000 John Hancocks) to place a constitutional amendment on the November, 2018, statewide ballot.
If there is sufficient bipartisan support to pass a joint resolution during the upcoming lame duck session (between Nov. 8 and the end of this year), the legislature will decide when it would appear on the ballot and when it would take effect, if voters approve it.
Michigan election law provides for three election dates each year — in May, August and November. By year’s end, it’s conceivable this Michigan legislature could place a term limit question on the statewide ballot on any election date in 2017 or 2018 — but don’t count on it.