Budget snarl rekindles term limit debate
By GREGORY HERBERT
Capital News Service
LANSING – When the Legislature scrambled to resolve this year’s budget crisis and only narrowly avoided a complete state government shutdown, it took intensive debate and sleepless nights before lawmakers and the governor found a solution.
That showdown triggered widespread complaints that Michigan’s government is inefficient and needs reform.
As a result, Robert LaBrant, senior vice president of political affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, is pushing for a constitutional change of the Legislature’s term limits, calling the current limits “institutionalized inexperience.”
At present, a person may serve up to three two-year terms in the House and up to two four-year terms in the Senate, totaling a maximum of 14 years.
LaBrant called the limits “draconian” and proposed allowing members to serve a total of 12 years in the Legislature. The time could be served either in the House or Senate, or in any combination.
“Twelve years gives enough time to develop some kind of leadership,” said LaBrant, who pointed out that some members get to be committee chairs in their first term and even House speaker in their second.
The proposal would allow members to serve twice as long in the House and four more years in the Senate.
The realignment would help curb “pogo stick campaigners,” LaBrant said. Many times after their first term, legislators are already looking for the next office.
More focused and experienced legislators would make better policy, he said.
LaBrant’s proposal would also require the Legislature to pass a budget by every June 30, three months before the start of a new fiscal year. If lawmakers miss that deadline, the Legislature would be forced to hold a continuous session without pay until budget problems are resolved.
John Chamberlain, chair of the Michigan branch of Common Cause, also supports a change in term limits.
“I do think that term limits have proved to be dysfunctional for the Michigan Legislature,” said Chamberlain. “It’s time to try something different.”
Common Cause is a nonpartisan advocacy organization.
Chamberlain agreed that more experienced legislators would help the government run more efficiently and possibly avoid another budget crisis.
“The art of compromise is not something you learn in a short period of time,” he said.
Chamberlain called the proposed term limit change a “step in the right direction,”
Former Attorney Gen. Frank J. Kelley is opposed to any term limits and said that the Legislature is the “last place where inexperience is needed.”
Kelley, who campaigned against term limits while in office, called them illogical and said that elections are the solution to inadequate legislators.
In addition, Kelley said that forcing legislators to approve a budget by June 30 is unnecessary, saying, “I would like to think that this year’s experience wouldn’t happen again.”
Any change in term limits would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment. To get the amendment on a statewide ballot, the chamber would need to spend roughly $1.2 million to gather enough signatures on a petition or gain the support of two-thirds of the Legislature, LaBrant said.
Chamberlain said he is not optimistic that the proposal would win enough votes, saying that constitutional amendments are hard to pass, even for good reasons.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2006, 15 states had term-limit laws.
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© 2007, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism