One major piece of legislation was approved in the 98th Michigan Legislature’s lame duck session, which adjourned Dec. 15 except for a few last-minute house-keeping duties on New Year’s Eve.
In the dying hours of lame duck, lawmakers gave final approval to an overhaul of the state’s energy policy in a deal brokered by Gov. Rick Snyder. That was the one big accomplishment; meanwhile, a number of other measures died on the vine. That included reform of public school and local government employee benefits; tightening voter ID laws; codification of “Citizens United” campaign finance; giving the Capitol Committee in Lansing bonding authority for infrastructure improvements on the aging edifice; and imposing new striking worker penalties.
One package of bills on a subject that, year-in and year-out, gets far more attention from the general public than any of the issues mentioned above was also given short shrift. That would be modifying or amending Michigan’s controversial law on term limits for state elected officials. In this case, “law” means constitutional language adopted by voters in a statewide plebisite in 1992.
Since 1992, no effort has been mounted by any citizen activist group, the news media, or special interest to amend or rescind Michigan’s constitutional bar against serving more than three two-year terms in the state House of Representatives or two four-year terms in the state Senate or in statewide offices like Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, or Secretary of State. Instead, critics have made periodic efforts to browbeat state legislators into producing a 2/3 majority vote in each chamber to put term limits reform on the ballot. In other words, induce lawmakers who are in place because of term limits to ask voters to perpetuate the legislators now that they’re there. For that and other obvious reasons, that dog has never come close to hunting.
Until, maybe, early last month, just after the general election. That’s when term-limited state Rep. Lisa Lyons (R-Alto), the newly-elected Kent Co. Clerk, scheduled six term limit reform resolutions for two days of public hearings before her House Elections Committee in Lansing’s Anderson House Office Bldg.
On the docket were House Joint Resolution C, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Farrington (R-Utica); HJR Q, sponsored by Rep. Charles Smiley (D-Burton); HJR TT, sonsored by Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville); and three HJRs sponsored by state Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Norway) — HJR V, W, and X.
These resolutions ranged from trying to limit terms for members of Congress (part of the 1992 constitutional amendment struck down by a federal court), to allowing state legislators to serve in either chamber for a limited number of years, be it less than the current total of 14 (12) or more (16); to extending the maximum number of terms to 12 years in each chamber; to scuttling term limits completely for both the executive and legislative branches; to abolishing term limits just for the legislature; and to removing the “lifetime” ban in the Michigan version by allowing lawmakers to “sit out” for a term after a certain length of service but then be able to return if elected by the voters.
Testifying were a variety of sponsors (Barrett and McBroom) as well as legal scholar Bob LaBrant of the Sterling Corporation; David Guldenschuh of the Heartland Institute; and former state Rep. Tom McMillin, elected in November to an eight-year term on the state Board of Education. Also asked to speak was former state Rep. and state Senator Bill Ballenger, publisher of The Ballenger Report. Here is what he said:
“Madame Chairwoman, members of the Committee, thank you for asking me to testify on these bills. I see on the agenda that today’s hearing is supposed to focus on HJR TT, on which you just heard testimony from its sponsor, Rep. Barrett. Tomorrow, you’re evidently intending to discuss HJR V, WW, and X, but I can’t be here, so I hope you’ll allow me to expand my remarks to cover all the resolutions lodged in your committee on the subject of term limits (Rep. Lyons assures him that is appropriate) … OK, let me just say in a broad brush — and I hope I’m not hurting anybody’s feelings when I say this — that I don’t think any of these resolutions is any good, at least as written. There is one that has merit, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but the other thing I would emphasize is that if this committee, and the Legislature as a whole, is really serious about doing something about term limits, BE PRACTICAL. Consider HJR TT — it revisits the old question of whether the terms of service of Members of Congress can be limited. As you know the courts have struck that down, so no single state can do that. Only the Congress itself can be the judge of the qualifications of its own Members. HJR TT attempts to get around this problem by calling a national constitutional convention. I suppose you could try to do that, or amend HJR TT to memorialize Congress to call for such a convention, or simply to approve a constitutional amendment that would have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Supposedly, two states have already called for a national Con-Con, but it’s unclear whether each such request has to be on the same subject, in this case term limits, or whether such a convention could be confined to just one subject. Anyway you look at it, assuming that you can get a 2/3 majority of the Michigan legislature, or a 2/3 majority of some three dozen states necessary to call a national convention is simply fantasy. It’s not going to happen. Why waste time on it?
“As far as term limits for Michigan legislators is concerned, remember, this is a constitutional amendment we’re talking about, so it will require a vote of the people. There have been quite a few polls taken in the past quarter-century on this subject, and it depends how you word the question, but the vast majority show either that term limits still has plurality or majority support among the electorate, or the citizenry is so divided that nobody, or any organization, wants to gamble on expending the resources in time and money to try to get a term limits reform amendment on the ballot and then try to sell it to the voters of Michigan. They’re too afraid they’d lose, and they probably would, especially if it would be to totally REPEAL term limits, like HJRs Q and V, or, practically speaking, HJR C, which would EXTEND terms to 12 years in each chamber. The only chance you have is a modification of Rep. McBroom’s HJR W, with a whiff of his HJR X thrown in. W would raise Michigan’s ceiling from the current 14 years to 16 years, and it would allow them to be served in either chamber. X is modeled on what they’ve got in Ohio — you could serve four two-year terms in the House and/or two four-year terms in the Senate, then you would have to sit out a term, but then you could run again for either the House or Senate and start the cycle all over again. In other words, get rid of the lifetime ban.
“Let me just go back in time a little. I remember 1992, when term limits was on the ballot in Michigan. As I made my way around the state giving talks and fielding questions on that year’s election, I said repeatedly that I personally was against term limits. It was a bad idea, I said. But I also said that it was almost certainly going to pass. The public was fed up with too many legislators in Lansing they felt had served too long, but they couldn’t get rid of them. The aggregate number of years served by legislators in the House and Senate in 1992 was the highest it had ever been in Michigan history. In November of that year, the voters spoke, and what you got was one of the three most draconian term limit laws in the country. The only other states that had language as extreme as Michigan’s were California and Arkansas. For most of the past 25 years, these three states have had the most draconian term limit standards in the U.S. However, in 2012 California’s legislators mustered the political courage to put a proposal on the ballot to spend all 12 years of a lifetime limit (down from the previous 14 total) in either legislative chamber. They could serve all 12 years in the house, or all 12 years in the senate, or the 12 years could be split between the two chambers. In 2014, Arkansas did somewhat the same thing as California had two years earlier, except that Arkansas INCREASED the amount of service from what had been 14 years to 16, but those 16 could be served in either chamber, or in a combination of the two. The “lifetime” ban language stayed in place in both states. In both states, voters approved these amendments.
“What this means is that now Michigan alone has the most draconian state legislative term limits in the entire nation.
“I’ll conclude my making two recommendations: Amend Rep. McBroom’s HJR W, which is modeled on the Arkansas 2014 amendment, to 12 years instead of 16. That would make us just like California, and it would take away the argument term limit advocates might make that you’re trying to extend your maximum time in office (from 14 years to 16). Instead, you could make the argument, “Look, we’re actually being TOUGHER on ourselves by cutting our total service form 14 years to 12, but we’re letting that service be in either chamber, in whatever combination of terms.” I’d keep the lifetime ban language intact, but if you want to gamble you could include the Ohio “sit-out-a-term” language.
“The other recommendation I’d make — and this is a tough one, I know — is to take yourselves out of the game. Don’t give your opponents any ability to claim that you personally are tying to profit from what you’re doing with term limits. Make the effective date of the ballot proposal to be sometime in the future, after you’ve left the Legislature and are prohibited by current law from ever serving again. This should be for future legislatures, not for you.
“What you as a committee decides to do, or what the four caucuses — Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate — decide to do is, as you know, a political decision. You know whatever you might want to put on the ballot requires a 2/3 majority vote in each chamber, so it’s got to be bi-partisan. That’s the biggest hurdle of all for this Legislature, but if you’re going to do it, at least give the proposal a chance to be approved by the voters. If you don’t, you’ll probably set back any chance of amending term limits forever.
“Thank you, Madame Chairwoman, and I’ll be glad to answer any questions.”
After two days of hearings, however, no further action was taken by the House Elections Committee, and now the bills are dead. Only one legislator who introduced one of the resolutions — Rep. Barrett — will return for the 99th Michigan Legislature. Farrington, McBroom, and Smiley are term-limited.