When voters in 1992 were asked to approve Proposal B to usher in term limits for Michigan lawmakers and members of the administration, 69 percent of those casting ballots said yes to what is considered the most stringent in the nation. I was not among them. Not a supporter then. Still not, 30 years later. Willing, however, to accept some modification of what we now have as a compromise.
Those who wrote the amendment to the Michigan Constitution made a convincing case to many that lawmakers and those holding the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state should be limited to how long they could hold those positions. Those of us who have for any length of time followed the machinations in Lansing can all name any number of House or Senate members who simply stayed around too long – amassed too much individual power, strayed across that fine line that separates ethical lawmakers from those who would benefit themselves, figuratively and literally, without a second thought.
But the backers of the term limit amendment assured voters that restricting how long someone could stick around in Lansing would usher in a new era of fresh ideas, bold decisions and reduced corruption. Sorry, we have yet to see all of these promises fulfilled. Certainly the corruption and questionable ethics still persist – think the current Chatfield or Courser-Gamrat affairs, just for starters, or a number of self-dealing or conflict of interest votes in past years. The ideas? For the most part they are no more fresh than in the past.
As for bold decisions? Ask any member of the House and Senate and most will privately concede that term limits need to be revised but no one has the fortitude to lead the charge for fear of threatening their time in office.
Now comes a bipartisan group with a proposal to revise – not eliminate – the current legislature term limits and at the same time provide financial disclosure regulations for the administrative offices and for lawmakers.
The folks behind this push – Voters For Transparency & Term Limits – include Democrat Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, former Republican House Speaker Jase Bulger, Richard Studley, retired CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, as well as members of organized labor.
The bi-partisan group has submitted a petition to the Michigan Board of Canvassers. If it clears the board process, a petition drive to collect 425,000 signatures by July 11 will begin. If successful, voters will decide this amendment to the Constitution when they cast ballots in November. Yes, the legislature could be asked to place the amendment on the ballot but good luck with that, especially given the financial disclosure portion of this ballot proposal.
Here's the skinny when it comes to the term limits part of this amendment.
Under the current system, dictated by the Constitution, House members may serve up to three two-year terms and Senate members can serve two four-year terms. If someone wanted to serve in the House and then the Senate, they would be allowed to be a lawmaker for 14 years.
The proposal by the Voters For Transparency & Term Limits group would allow a candidate for the House to serve up to 12 years in that chamber – six two-year terms. Members of the Senate could serve three four-year terms for a total of 12 years in that chamber.
In essence, the maximum time in the legislature would be 12 years instead of the current 14 years.
The logic behind this is to give House and Senate members added time to thoroughly understand their jobs and build relationships with other lawmakers with the intent of creating a more collaborative atmosphere in Lansing. In turn, it would also help minimize the imbalanced sway lobbyists and full-time staffers have over the legislative process because they have gained power by default over elected lawmakers who are forced from office in six or eight years, thanks to the current term limits. An admirable goal to have elected lawmakers with the upper hand over lobbyists and special interests when writing legislation we all must live under.
Now for the financial disclosure portion of this proposed constitutional amendment.
The House in the last couple of sessions has made a valiant attempt to push the financial disclosure issue as a means of adding some transparency to the legislative and administrative process. Each time the move draws media headlines. After all, our state ranks near the bottom in national surveys when it comes to transparency so some acknowledgement is in order.
But here's how it has gone more than once – House passes a less-than-perfect financial disclosure package of bills. Senate kills it by sending the bills to committee where they are never heard about again. The failure of late has to do with the Senate leader each of the recent terms, who does not support financial disclosure. Not sure which analogy is more applicable – someone who has the appetite for political power, as well as the preservation of the same once achieved or the old adage that laws are made by the winners to preserve victory over the losers.
As for the House package of bills, I say less-than-perfect because the latest financial disclosure proposal was mostly right on the mark, except all financial information would be filed with a special legislature-appointed committee and not available for public review unless the panel thought there was a violation and maybe some of the information would be released. Maybe. A seriously flawed proposal if there ever was one.
The Voters For Transparency & Term Limits amendment would force lawmakers, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state to electronically file with the Department of State each year reports about assets and unearned income; purchases, sales or exchanges of real property; earned income; liabilities; gifts; travel payments and reimbursements; and a few other items. All reports would be available online to the public. No limitations.
Knowing that some lawmakers would attempt to subvert this amendment should voters adopt it, the proposal also provides that if the legislature fails by the end of December 2023 to adopt implementation legislation for the required disclosure, any resident can file suit with the Michigan Supreme Court to force the requirements to be enacted.
So do we wait even longer for House and Senate members to finally address either of these issues? I say enough. We need to get behind the bi-partisan effort to both fix the shortcomings of the current term limits and provide financial disclosure. Take the power granted to us for petitioning for change at the ballot box. Now.