LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A potential plan to ask Michigan voters to ease legislative term limits would likely be paired with “good government” changes aimed at addressing the state’s feeble transparency and accountability grades.
No proposal has been finalized. But the fact that Republican legislative leaders on Tuesday privately briefed their caucuses about talks with two political heavyweights — the Voters Not Politicians ballot committee and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — is a sign that there is serious interest in revising how long lawmakers can serve.
The constitutional amendment would need Democratic votes for the GOP-led Legislature to put it on the 2020 ballot, or a group would have to turn in 425,000 valid signatures.
The developing measure could include the creation of an ethics committee to review allegations against legislators, and it may be tied to bills pending in the Legislature. Those include requiring candidates and officeholders to fill out financial disclosures, subjecting the Legislature and governor’s office to public-records requests, and instituting a waiting period for public officials to become lobbyists.
“Not much is finalized just yet, but I am proud to be working together in a bipartisan way with everyone who is willing to come to the table with real ideas for how to improve state government and make our elected officials more responsive and accountable to the people they represent,” House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Levering Republican, said Tuesday after the discussions were first reported by Lansing-based Michigan Information & Research Service.
Michigan voters enacted term limits in 1992 that allow legislators to serve 14 years, including three two-year House terms and two four-term Senate terms. They are viewed as the most restrictive among the 15 states with consecutive or lifetime legislative term limits.
While GOP leaders and others did not indicate what specifically could be proposed to voters — or how it could affect current legislators — critics have noted that the five other states with lifetime bans like Michigan’s allow lawmakers to serve longer overall or to spend their entire careers in one chamber.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican, has said he wants to put a term limits initiative on the 2020 or 2022 ballot. When he first declared his interest in May, the leader of the grassroots group Voters Not Politicians — which shocked the political establishment by successfully spearheading a 2018 constitutional amendment to overhaul redistricting — also was enthusiastic.
“I don’t think it should be a surprise to anybody that they have talked about this more than once,” said Shirkey’s spokeswoman, Amber McCann.
Nancy Wang, the ballot committee’s executive director, said it is committed to “ending the revolving door, term limits, opening the Legislature and governor to FOIA, and ethics reforms all aimed at restoring Michigan voters’ faith in our state and democracy. We have spoken with many groups, including some lawmakers, who could move these reforms forward, and we will consider taking them to the ballot should that be necessary.”
Michigan is one of two states where lawmakers pass and reject laws without the public knowing about their personal finances. Other state elected officials do not have to file disclosures either.
Michigan is one of two states to wholly exempt both legislators and governor’s office from disclosing communications and other information to the public. Unlike most states, Michigan also has no mandatory “cooling off” period before a government official may register as a lobbyist, except when a legislator resigns from office.
Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, called the deliberations a “positive development.” The group has long advocated for changing term limits.
“It’s a real challenge, especially for newly elected lawmakers, to come up to speed on more difficult, more complicated or more controversial issues,” Studley said.
If legislators first approve other bills aimed at improving state government by making it more open and transparent, he said, the public may be more willing to ease term limits.
Studley cautioned, however, that the presidential election could be “very noisy and very contentious” and his organization’s commitment to a term limits campaign could depend on whether it also has to spend money to defeat potential initiatives that business leaders would see as damaging.
“There is no agreement on a plan or a campaign or a strategy,” he said. “All those things would be still to be determined.”