Have term limits been good for Michigan?

The state Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It has been more than 20 years since Michigan voters approved term limits for state legislators.

Under the term limits, representatives can serve only six year in the House and eight in the Senate.

There is no dispute that term limits have changed the way business is done in Lansing, but there is no unanimity about the value of that change.

“The institutional memory has been destroyed,” former state representative Don Gilmer said. “(Legislators) were there until 3 o’clock in the morning night after night after night because they just simply didn’t have the capacity to really close a deal. Because there weren’t any of those wise old sages who said, ‘Now, this is a problem. Let’s agree on the problem and then let’s agree on the solution.’ But I don’t see a lot of that.”

Gilmer served 22 years in the state House starting in 1976. He was forced to leave because of term limits. When he first arrived in Lansing, he had an advantage that today’s freshmen do not. He was able to learn from members who had served, in some cases, for decades.

“They were happy to do some mentoring. And now, a mentor is somebody who’s been there at least two years,” Gilmer said.

Patrick Anderson from Anderson Economic Group was involved in the term limits movement from the beginning. His support of the idea has not wavered in the more than two decades since he pushed to have them implemented.

“This is part of our tradition, to limit the amount of time someone can be in a certain office to avoid the problems of concentration of power, and of almost carrying it along monarchical sense on to someone else who you identify. That’s been our tradition for a very long time,” Anderson said.

Anderson thinks constant turnover in the state government is a good thing.

“I think term limits has been a big success for Michigan,” he said. “That’s not say that I like every elected official — that’s not possible, right? Do I agree with every decision? Preposterous that anyone could do that. Do I see that some people do a better job than others? Of course. That’s part of why we have term limits, because we want to have new ideas and we’re going to accept that some people are going to disagree and do a better job than others.”

Former Gov. John Engler was a supporter of term limits — though he served more than two decades in the legislature and 12 years as governor.

But a couple of years ago in an interview with The National Conference of State Legislatures, Engler said, “I don’t think term limits have worked. I’m prepared to say it was a failed experiment.”

Despite his assessment and that of a number current and former office holders, there is no reason to believe that there is any serious movement to change those limits. That’s because, at least in part, lawmakers have no appetite for taking on what would be a controversial task. And much of the public’s general perception of government makes a vote to repeal term limits unlikely.

Grand Rapids voters will decide in November if they want to implement term limits for the mayor and city commissioners.

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