Term limits take a beating

It’s time to change Michigan’s law.

It was interesting last week to watch Michigan’s term limits law come under attack by one of its staunchest supporters.

Former Republican Gov. John Engler was in the state to host fundraisers for the Michigan Political Leadership Program with former Democratic Gov. James Blanchard. The program is administered by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. Both Engler and Blanchard are MSU graduates.

The two men criticized term limits in appearances in Livonia and Grand Rapids. Both said term limits have had negative effects on the state Legislature and have contributed to Lansing’s inability to get things done.

“I think term limits have been disastrous. I wish it was undone,” Engler said. He said issues such as Medicaid, school finance, transportation funding and corrections reforms are too complex for inexperienced elected officials to handle, according to several published reports.

Blanchard, who opposed term limits, added lawmakers “are not in Lansing long enough to build relationships, trust and valid expertise” because of term limits.

The two former politicians both spent many years in public office. Blanchard served four terms in the U.S. House before becoming a two-term governor and later was U.S. ambassador to Canada. He now works for global law and lobbying firm DLA Piper in Washington, D.C.

Engler served 20 years in the state Legislature before becoming a three-term governor. He was one of the youngest members ever elected to the state House. He is president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Their comments only stated publicly what’s already been whispered by many in Lansing. As frustration with the Legislature’s inability to resolve difficult issues mounts, that whispering has become a low roar.

Michigan’s term limits law was approved in 1992 by 59 percent of the voters. Under the law, House members can serve a lifetime maximum of six years — three, two-year terms. The forced House retirements began with the 1998 election. Those with four-year terms (state senators, governor, secretary of state and attorney general) are limited to eight years in office. Forced retirements for those offices began with the 2002 election.

Of course, some lawmakers figured out how to stay in the game by switching sides. Once they used up their time in the House, they would seek a Senate seat or other state office. In the upcoming election for example, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, term limited out of his post, is running for attorney general. Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, D-Redford Twp., is running for governor. Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, who has served in both the Senate and the House, is running for governor.

Others maintain term limits make voters lazy — where they might have voted out a lawmaker they were dissatisfied with under the old rules, now they just wait until they’re “termed” out.

Despite the dissatisfaction with term limits and the gaming of the system, no one seems willing to take on the issue. Blanchard said he’s not interested in conducting a campaign to change term limits because it’s unrealistic to think voters will amend the law. He called it “a distraction” from more important issues.

Others have proposed keeping term limits, but expanding them with more years of service, maybe 12 years in the House and the Senate. Rep. Mark Meadows, D-Lansing, Wednesday announced a proposal along these lines.

Term limits also could be changed if voters support a constitutional convention and rewrite the state’s basic laws. The proposal will be on the November ballot. Both Engler and Blanchard also opposed that idea, saying a constitutional convention would be too wide-ranging and expensive. Congressman Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, has said a constitutional convention would discourage business from coming into the state until they know what the new Constitution will be, which could delay Michigan’s recovery another two years.

That’s why the November election will be more important than ever. Because of term limits, the governor, attorney general and secretary of state will be replaced. Thirty of 38 senators and 77 of the 110 representatives will be gone as well. All of West Michigan’s local representatives will change.

We need to elect representatives who will act and who have a plan for changing how things operate in Lansing. Voters need to start paying attention now.