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Only in the Midwest ~ Michigan's term limits law puts lifetime cap on legislative service

by Mike McCabe ~ June 2012 ~ Stateline Midwest »
When voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma approved the nation’s first state legislative term limits in 1992, they triggered a wave of similar reforms that eventually produced term limit laws in more than 20 states. A decade later, the wave had crested, and it’s now been almost a dozen years since such a measure has been approved.
A reversal in momentum has seen term limits repealed by legislatures or thrown out by courts in six of the 21 states that previously approved them. But they continue to shape the legislative environment in 15 states — including four in the Midwest (Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota).
The impact of term limits remains the subject of much debate. But most policymakers can agree on this: In states that have adopted them, term limits represent one of the most significant institutional changes in legislative history.
Michigan stands alone in Midwest
All four of the states in the Midwest that have term limits initially adopted their laws in 1992, at the height of the term limits wave. (Nebraska’s provision was later struck down by the state Supreme Court — a pattern that would be repeated two more times before Nebraska voters approved a measure in 2000 that still stands today.)
These voter-initiated constitutional amendments were similar in many ways, but Michigan’s provision ultimately stood out from the pack.
Alone among the Midwestern states, Michigan is one of just six states nationwide to impose a lifetime limit on legislative service, as opposed to a limit on consecutive years of service. And its restriction on service in the state House of Representatives (three two-year terms) is the shortest limit in the region.
The first election to be affected by Michigan’s term limits occurred in 1998, when 64 of the state’s 110 representatives (58 percent of the total) were prohibited from seeking reelection. Since then, turnover in both of the state’s legislative chambers has remained high, and the legislative landscape in Lansing has changed.
According to House Speaker Jase Bolger, term limits are now just a fact of life in Michigan, and he doesn’t buy into the idea that they should be blamed for what some see as occasional dysfunction in state government.
“It’s our job to get the job done with the framework we have in place,” Bolger says.
Bolger admits that term limits have changed the operational dynamics in Michigan, but he points with pride to numerous legislative successes achieved with term limits in place, adding, “It’s possible to get the job done in any era.”

Impact of limits difficult to quantify

Term limits have increasingly come under fire in recent years from critics citing numerous concerns, such as an erosion in the balance of power between the branches of government, legislative inefficiencies due to the loss of institutional memory, the inexperience of members and the constant turnover of leaders. But they remain extremely popular among voters.
A 2010 Michigan study found that 78 percent of respondents favored legislative term limits. And efforts to alter or repeal enacted term limits — in Michigan and other states — have repeatedly stalled in recent years. Statutory term limits have been legislatively repealed in two states (Idaho and Utah), but to date, no constitutional term limits have been overturned by voters.
A recent report on the effects of term limits in Michigan (prepared by the Michigan Society of Association Executives) concluded that while there is little evidence to indicate that term limits have improved the legislative process, their impact is difficult to quantify.
Bolger does point to one impact: the pressure on term-limited lawmakers to make their marks quickly.
“There’s a sense of urgency that comes with term limits,” he says. But when legislators are dealing with urgent issues, he says, that can be beneficial in many ways.

Article written by Mike McCabe, director of the CSG Midwest Office. Only in the Midwest is an ongoing series of articles that highlights unique features of state governments in the Midwest.