The story is from the October 3, 2007 Detroit News
LANSING -- Legislative term limits are blamed by their critics as a silent culprit in the budget impasse that nearly locked down most of state government this week.
The constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1992 has put inexperienced lawmakers into leadership positions, fostered distrust among officials and increased the focus on politics over policy, say former and current lawmakers, constitutional experts and seasoned capital watchers.
The governor and lawmakers eventually did forge a final accord -- four hours after a partial shutdown began -- but there was the potential for disaster.
"The term limits law was the main reason for this breakdown," said Bill Rustem, president of the nonpartisan think tank Public Sector Consultants Inc. "You're putting people with less than five years' experience in a position of negotiating a $40 billion budget. It can't work.
"Can you imagine GM and the UAW going to the bargaining table with people inexperienced at negotiating? They'd never get a deal," added Rustem, who served as a key policy aide to former Gov. William G. Milliken.
Not everyone buys that argument.
Kurt O'Keefe, a Detroit attorney who heads a group called Don't Touch Term Limits, said the budget mess in Lansing is an argument for term limits -- not against them.
"Let me get this straight: The group we have up there now is not doing the job so we should overturn a vote of the people on term limits and keep them there longer?" O'Keefe said. "We need term limits so they are removed as soon as possible and we can get somebody else in there."
The two key legislative players in the budget morass -- Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester and House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township -- each have less than nine months of experience in their top leadership roles. And both, drawing on personal experience in battle, favor easing the nation's most restrictive cap on legislative service.
As it stands, House members can serve three two-year terms; senators are permitted to serve two four-year terms.
Dillon conceded his inexperience was a factor in the budget crisis.
"Being new to government, this was very frustrating for me," he said.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm also singled out term limits as a key contributing factor in the prolonged stalemate.
"Term limits definitely created a problem with trust and with our ability to work together," she said.
Inertia, job-hopping cited
Bob LaBrant, a state constitutional law expert and vice president of the influential Michigan Chamber of Commerce, is among the harshest critics of state term limits. He's aiming for the Jan. 15 presidential primary ballot with a reform proposal to allow lawmakers to serve a total of 12 years in either the House or Senate, or a combination of service in either one.
The chamber's proposal wouldn't tinker with the limit imposed on the governor -- two four-year terms. Granholm has five years under her belt as governor and nine total years in state government.
Under its ballot proposal, the amount of time a legislator could serve in the House would dramatically increase expertise on policy issues and consensus building, LaBrant says.
"In my judgment, the mess we were dealing with here was due to the lack of leadership ladders, institutionalized inexperience and an obsession among lawmakers to look for the next office to run for," he said.
"We have lawmakers reinventing the wheel and getting on pogo sticks jumping from office to office."
Many House members restricted to six years on the job are looking at future runs for the Senate almost as soon as they arrive in Lansing, and vice versa. Critics say that job-hopping causes lawmakers to look over their shoulders at how potential rivals may be voting on issues before deciding how to vote themselves. The situation can lead to inertia and a fear of making major policy decisions.
Harry Gast, who retired from the Senate in 2002 after three decades in the Legislature and many years as the highly respected chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it pains him to see what's happening in Lansing.
"The budget problems of today are because there are no guts in the Legislature to make hard decisions," Gast said. "Today's lawmakers, if they want to be returned to office, figure the best way is don't make waves, don't get anyone upset and duck making the tough decisions for a few years so it becomes somebody else's problem."
Co-creator defends law
Patrick Anderson, a Lansing economist, former state official and one of the architects behind the term limits law, said it's a stretch to blame the law for the crisis.
"This was a partisan deadlock over the size of government that has grown from a small problem to a bigger problem to an enormous problem over the last five years," he said. "The inability to live within a budget once it's been adopted is clearly the responsibility of the state's chief executive. There is blame to go to the Legislature as well. But it pretty much has nothing to do with term limits."
Term limits was a political idea that swept the nation in the early 1990s. It was spawned in large measure by anger at the Congress for its check-writing scandals and seniority system that elevated members based solely on longevity without regard to competence. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states lack the power to limit congressional terms, but restrictions on state elective offices remained in force.
Today, 15 states have term limits. Since Michigan voters adopted the limits 15 years ago by a 3-2 margin, three states have passed similar laws. And term-limit laws in six states were repealed through court or legislative action. Michigan, California and Arkansas have the most restrictive measures in the nation, limiting House members to six years.
Next year, term limits will take out 44 members of the 110-member House. In 2010, the law will force 30 of the 38 senators to bow out.
A Detroit News/WXYZ-TV poll in mid-June found voters were having second thoughts about term limits. An even 50 percent favored a proposal to scrap the law, compared to 43 percent who wanted to keep the restrictions at three two-year terms for House members and two four-year terms for state senators, the governor and lieutenant governor, the secretary of state and attorney general.
Jennie Bowser, an analyst with the National Council of State Legislatures, said the wind has gone out of the term limits movement.
"The promise sounded great: 'Let's throw out the bums and get in fresh blood and get a more representative body,' " she said. "Much of that promise never came to pass and many have decided that term limits wasn't the great idea it was thought to be."
You can reach Mark Hornbeck at (313) 222-2470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.