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IPPSR Public Policy Forum: Term Limits

The Institute for Public Policy and Social Research held a policy forum focused on Michigan’s tough term limits and their effects on the Michigan Legislature. The Public Policy Forum took place just after the November 2018 election.

Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, professor of political science at Wayne State University, has studied the impact on Michigan’s term limits since implementation in 1992. The study was conducted over a 14-year period with interviews from seven legislative sessions. Dr. Sarbaugh-Thompson says there are different types of term limits in states all across the country, but none as strict as Michigan. Term limits have resulted in significant impacts on legislative committees, relationships, and state agencies. Sarbaugh-Thompson explained that at times newly elected legislators chair committees with little experience, which leads to autocratic leadership styles and poor personal dynamics. Further, relationships have been strained due to term limits because coalitions have not had time to develop, which leads to an increase in partisanship. Term limits have narrowed the amount of legislative institutional knowledge of state agencies. Newly elected legislatures need time to develop contact and ties to state agencies to know what questions to ask.

Ken Sikkema, senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants (PSC) has had experience with the Legislature both before and after Michigan’s term limits. He points out the increase in political polarization and the change in U.S. political dynamics, which makes it hard to untangle the challenges of term limits. However, Sikkema explained two negative effects to Michigan politics because of term limits. Fundraising has dramatically increased with more seats opening frequently and more money being needed. Further, the bureaucracy has gained more power through term limits. The higher the turnover rate among legislators the more influence is given to outside stakeholders.

Sen. Rebekah Warren, at the time a new Representative-elect, has had firsthand experience with term limits. She served in the state House for four years before election to the state Senate and eventually being term limited out. In 2018, she successfully ran for her final term in the state House before she is term limited out again. Warren talked at length about her experiences. She said she was given a committee assignment without credentials for the position. Many legislators must take time to get acquainted with their assignments and their new job and with term limits, she said. Warren said politics is a relationship business and term limits that restrict the amount of interaction with the other side of the aisle make policy-making extremely partisan.

Panelist Chuck Hadden, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA), said term limits can shift the power from legislators to the executive branch and the bureaucracy. The quality of legislators Michigan has been seeing since term limit implementation is still there, but the dynamics of power, relationships, and money has made it a difficult job. Politics is the only job where having experience is labeled as a bad thing, but being a legislator is a skill that is developed over time, and term limits have a negative impact on that potential, he said.

Hannah Sweeney is an IPPSR Graduate Fellow pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Michigan State University.