By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service
LANSING – Many government officials and experts agree – the state needs to consider restructuring the current term limits for lawmakers.
Rep. Tim Bledsoe, D-Grosse Pointe, is the sponsor of a resolution that would allow legislators to serve 14 years between the House and Senate any way they desire. Lawmakers are currently limited under a 1992 constitutional amendment, which limits senators to serving two four-year terms and representatives, three two-year terms.
If passed, the measure would be on the August 2010 ballot.
“More than ever, we need capable and experienced leadership in Lansing,” Bledsoe said. “Yet due to term limits, we continually replace one group of inexperienced leaders with another, with none gaining the skills and knowledge needed to pull Michigan out of its economic crisis.”
Former Rep. David Palsrok, who served three terms from 2003-2007 said restructuring would be a step in the right direction but cautioned present members from allowing themselves to benefit from the proposed change.
“With the current term limits, the House and Senate are too quick to legislate. There’s not enough thought that goes into it,” said Palsrok, R-Manistee. “It’s sort of ram-and-jam these days, and I think that’s very bad.”
Palsrok, now vice president of government relations for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said voters would be more receptive to extending limits if the change affects only future legislators.
“That would send a strong message to the voters that their interest is in the institutions of the House and Senate rather than their own personal benefit,” Palsrok said.
However, former Rep. Leon Drolet, who served three terms from 2001-2006, strongly opposes any change. He says the current limits put in place by voters are there for a reason.
“Extensions rarely mean anything good for citizens,” said Drolet, R-Macomb. “I can’t imagine why the extensions would be of any value to citizens. I can see why it would be of value to politicians.”
Drolet, who now chairs the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, said limits effectively break formerly unbreakable long-term alliances between legislators, special interests and lobbyists.
“Term limits force lobbyists to continually make their cases, over and over again to a larger group of people rather than establishing a single relationship,” Drolet said. “It makes it a lot harder for lobbyists to influence lawmakers.”
In addition, Drolet argues that before the current term limits, legislators were more vulnerable to the corruption and comforts of the political arena.
“It’s painful for a lot of lawmakers when they’re taken out of that environment and they realize they have to pick up their own dinner check,” Drolet said. “They realize all those lobbyists in Lansing weren’t really their friends and they have to fend for themselves in Michigan’s economic climate, just like anyone else.”
Critics of the current limits claim that they undermine the people’s right to determine who holds public office and cost their legislative districts influence based on longevity. Senior members frequently chair committees and exert greater clout over legislation and appropriations.
However, Drolet contests that all candidates run for office asserting that they are capable and ready to lead.
“If they are now arguing that I was absolutely clueless for five years, but now I’m figuring it out, what does that say about what they were telling people when they first ran for office?,” Drolet said.
Proponents of change also warn that high turnover, which tops 70 percent in some elections, diminish the Legislature’s ability to operate efficiently.
In the 2010 election 29 Senate incumbents – 76 percent of the members – are term-limited – while 33 incumbent representatives – or 30 percent – are term-limited.
In January, 46 House lawmakers or 42 percent of the membership took office. Forty-four of those seats were open in last year’s election because incumbents were term-limited.
Supporters of the current system say that limits bring new ideas and people to government, cause politicians to do what’s right rather than what’s popular, control the influence of interest groups and keep politicians more in touch with their constituents.
“Changing term limits won’t solve all of our problems, but it is another piece to the puzzle,” said Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City.
Schmidt, a first-termer who began his tenure last month, said he’s never favored term limits.
“I believe it’s up to the voters to decide who they want in office,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said he joined a freshman caucus in favor of extending term limits and is cosponsoring Bledsoe’s resolution. Twenty-nine freshman legislators are co-sponsoring the resolution some of which include: Fred Durhal, D-Detroit; Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield; Joe Haveman, R-Holland; and Matt Lori, R-Constantine.
“Term limits have especially hurt us in terms of leadership,” Schmidt said. “The budgets are very intricate so you don’t have the knowledge, you don’t have the context within various departments, and you also don’t have the relationship amongst legislators on either side of the aisle or even within your own caucus.”
Bledsoe’s resolution is pending in the House Ethics and Elections Committee.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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By DANIEL OPSOMMER