Oct 22, 2007

Book says term limits are partly to blame for Michigan's budget mess

Wayne State University Professor Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson blames the inexperience of Michigan’s 148 legislators, caused by term limits, for the state government shutdown and failure of the Michigan Legislature to pass a balanced budget on time this fall.

“This is a perfect example of the lack of experience," said Sarbaugh-Thompson, author of the book “The Political and Institutional Effects of Term Limits.” “An experienced legislature would not have let this get so far down the road.”

Sarbaugh-Thompson is a professor of public administration, public policy and American politics. She has spent the last 10 years researching the effects of term limits in Michigan that limit legislators to serve six years in the House and eight years in the Senate. The limits went into effect in 1998. Her book, published in 2004 with four other professors, looks at the effects of term limits in other states as well as Michigan.

She said the inexperience of the House and Senate leadership are also to blame for the shutdown and not being able to get a budget done on time. Sarbaugh-Thompson pointed to the fact that both House and Senate members on both sides of the aisle conceded they needed a tax increase to balance the budget, but no one was willing to work a deal or compromise. She said it takes at least two terms to be comfortable in the House, but there are freshman representatives chairing important committees.

“If you think of it in terms of the business community, why would you make a junior executive the CEO,” she said. “They spend so much of their time just trying to get up to speed and understand what’s going on.”

Sarbaugh-Thompson said the issue of taxes is another example of the problems with term limits. She points at the tax cuts for 15 straight years as an example and former Gov. John Engler's role in that. A strong, long-serving executive was able to ramrod harmful tax cuts by an inexperienced Legislature with no real decrease in spending, showing how term limits can have a negative effect on the separation of powers.

“The real mistake was the Engler tax cuts,” Sarbaugh-Thompson said. “He drained the rainy day fund and did not cut spending.
“He did not have a strong legislature that could ride herd on him. ”

Sarbaugh-Thompson said the race to cut taxes has forced cuts on the very things that attract people and companies to Michigan. She pointed to the Infrastructure Report Card put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gives Michigan's infrastructure a grade of D-minus. Many state roads are so bad it costs auto owners an average of $300 a year in extra maintenance costs, and road congestion in the Detroit area costs commuters $939 per person per year in excess fuel and lost time.

“The thing that people do not understand is that when you cut taxes it costs people more,” she said. “The roads are the perfect example.”

She said term limits have not accomplished anything its backers claimed it would accomplish when it was sold to Michigan voters, who approved the constitutional amendment in 1992.

It was said more people would run for office, and voter turnout would increase because of the increased competition for more open seats. That has not happened, and her research shows voter turnout remains low. There is more competition for open seats in the primary, but traditionally primaries have always had low voter turnout. There is less competition in the general election because Republicans who controlled both the House and Senate in 2001 drew the district boundaries to make safe Republicans districts, making the general election less important than the primary in many districts, she maintains. It has worked so well that in the last election in 2006 more people voted for Democratic Senate candidates, but Republicans still maintained their 21-17 seat advantage.

The inexperience caused by term limits has also given lobbyists much more influence over legislators as they try to figure out complex issues and bills. Lobbyists have always assisted with drafting legislation, but that role has expanded under term limits. Sarbaugh-Thompson said a lobbyist pushing an important piece of legislation can safely mislead a lawmaker, and by the time the legislator catches on they have been term-limited.

“Proponents of term limits promised they would sever the cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers, but it has not happened,” she said. “You have to ask someone for answers.”

Term limits has also caused serious partisan polarization in Lansing. Because the only real races are in the primary, candidates have had to play to the extreme base of their party. The leaders are more extreme than in the past, and it has led to legislators having to signs inflexible things like anti-tax pledges that ties their hands in working toward good government. Often, party loyalty has taken over for loyalty to the state and the residents. That tends to disenfranchise at least half the residents at all times, she believes.

“The state should be governed from the middle,” Sarbaugh-Thompson said. “You really need to be in the middle to govern for the commonwealth of the people.”

Term limits also have politicians looking for their next political office before they even have a proper understanding of their current job. Often, decisions and floor votes are made more based on how they will play in their next primary election than how they will help Michigan. Many people believe this is the reason it has taken so long to get a budget completed in October, a process that’s usually done by June.

“They are more politically ambitious than ever,” Sarbaugh-Thompson said. “Future elections are playing a huge role in what is going on today.”

Of the 15 states that have term limits, Michigan, Arkansas and California have the shortest. Sarbaugh-Thompson supports at a minimum lengthening the time legislators can serve, giving them 12 years in each body. But she prefers getting rid of the limits altogether.

“You can vote for a convicted felon after 20 years, but you can’t vote for your state representative after six years,” she said. “My philosophy is that voters are smart enough to know who isn’t doing the job, but that doesn’t poll well.”

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has proposed a term-limits change that allows the lawmaker to serve 14 years, all in one chamber or in combination. The Senate Campaign and Election Oversight Committee is expected to hold hearings soon on a proposal that would cut the number of years a lawmaker can serve from the current 14 to 12, but they could serve it all in one chamber.

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