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Revolving doors, inexperience: Business and labor agree on term limit reform

BY Sunday, May 22, 2022 06:53pm

Business groups, organized labor officials, Democrats and Republicans are making strange bedfellows in support of a plan to reform term limits for statewide office, which restrict the amount of time lawmakers can spend in the House and Senate.

Earlier this month, the Legislature in rapid fashion approved a resolution that will allow voters in November to decide whether to alter Michigan’s term limits to elected office. The constitutional amendment also creates a pathway for new reporting requirements involving lawmakers’ outside income.

From left to right: Andy Johnston, Rich Studley, Scott Tillman, John Walsh

The Legislature’s plan largely mirrors a proposal by Voters for Transparency and Term Limits, a coalition of officials that include former Michigan Chamber of Commerce leader Rich Studley, former Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney, Detroit Mayor Mark Duggan and former Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger.

The proposed reforms wouldn’t eliminate the term limits in Michigan that currently restrict lawmakers to a maximum of three House terms and two Senate terms, totaling 14 years. Instead, the proposal would allow lawmakers to serve a total of 12 years, but they could do so in a single chamber or a combination between the two.

Business advocates say the proposal would eliminate a “revolving door” culture in Lansing politics that often places inexperienced lawmakers at the center of key decision making and churns former lawmakers into the lobbying sector.

“Three things: Stability in our governance, experience from those we elect on our behalf, and trust and relationships,” said Michigan Manufacturers Association President and CEO John Walsh, a former three-term state representative from Livonia whose organization supports the reform. “Our observation is there is a lack of trust and a lack of relationships in the Legislature within the parties themselves, let alone across the aisle.”

Other ballot measure supporters include the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Michigan voters approved the existing term limits in a 1992 ballot initiative known as Prop B, which passed 59 to 41 percent. The concept of term limits still polls favorably among the public, which partly explains the latest reform plan instead of a wholesale repeal.

“While term limits have broad appeal and many of our members supported it in the ’90s, I hear consistently that it’s a vote a lot of our members regret taking and supporting,” said Andy Johnston, the Grand Rapids Chamber’s senior vice president for advocacy and strategic engagement. “We have the most restrictive term limits in the nation. Term limits really prevent officials from time legislating, yet they have broad popular appeal. I like this (new) approach because it reduces the total number of years but gives them an opportunity to have a longer term of service in a chamber.”

Studley, the former longtime head of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, supported the 1992 voter-initiated constitutional amendment, but conceded that it created “unintended consequences.” 

Duggan’s office approached Studley last year about convening a group to support term limit reforms. Building support with the Democratic mayor and officials with major organized labor groups soon followed.

“There was a lot of consensus that good people of good will can agree to disagree over candidates and sometimes ballot proposals, but our view on this is: Good public policy is good politics,” Studley said. 

In another sign of bipartisan support, the Legislature’s move to place it on this year’s ballot required a two-thirds majority of both chambers. But Studley sees a direct connection to the business community.

“Unless you are a lawmaker who has owned and operated a business, there are a lot of regulatory and business climate issues that are not intuitive,” he said. “I voted for term limits and think they are a good idea, but one of the unintended consequences we have of our term limits today is they inadvertently created a revolving door in the (state) House.”

Meanwhile, Michigan is one of just two states — along with Idaho — that doesn’t require lawmakers to make financial disclosures, which Studley called “embarrassing and unacceptable.” The constitutional amendment would require the state Legislature to approve several criteria for financial disclosures, including income, assets, liabilities, gifts and other positions held.

“If the Legislature fails to pass comprehensive financial disclosures, every resident across the state can go directly to the Supreme Court and file a complaint for enforcement,” Studley said of the proposal.

 

Opposition surfaces

Despite bipartisan support for the reforms, an opposition group has formed to maintain Michigan’s current term limits. Group leaders include organizers from a successful effort in 2014 to create term limits for city of Grand Rapids elected officials.

Scott Tillman, who’s among the leaders of the Term Limits Defense Fund, says the proposal to reduce time in office from 14 years to 12 years is misleading, and called the Legislature’s action this month a “clear conflict of interest.”

“People of Michigan want politicians who do not have a ton of legislative experience — they want people with outside experience,” Tillman said. “People get frustrated with that because it’s easier to get an agenda passed if they have the same people in power for a long period of time.”

Tillman also countered that a revolving door exists in Washington, D.C., where congress members don’t face term limits.

Tillman, who lives in Kentwood, has helped lead ballot initiatives on term limits and other issues across the country, and also helped with the term limits initiative in Grand Rapids.

He maintains that a lack of legislative experience is actually a positive for lawmakers.

“It means we get real world, real life experience coming in, and a lot of it,” he said.

Walsh, who was first elected to office in 2008 at the height of Michigan’s “lost decade,” countered: “Whatever experience and knowledge I brought with me from my professional life wasn’t nearly enough to get me prepared to do the job I had to do.” 

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