Michigan Legislature Feeling Impact Of Term Limits


LANSING, Michigan - Call it The Year of the Rookie.

Term limits, approved overwhelmingly by Michigan voters in 1992, have finally kicked in. Big time.

While most agree it's too early to gauge the impact of term limits on the quality of debate and public policy, there's no denying its enormous impact on the face of those who shape the laws governing the state's 9.5 million residents.The evidence:

  • In the 110-member House, six of every 10 taking the oath of office in January were rookies. The 64 new House faces represent the biggest turnover since 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential landslide swept out 66 incumbents.
  • The age-old seniority system, where members used to serve a decade or longer before they banged the key committee gavels or occupied the plum assignments, has gone the way of the three-martini lunch. Today, a dozen of the 23 House standing committees are chaired by freshman lawmakers. On the House Appropriations Committee, 12 of the 27 lawmakers who are molding a $9.1 billion general fund budget don't yet have three months on-the-job experience.
  • Chuck Perricone, the newly installed House speaker, is beginning his fifth year in the legislature. Term limits mean he'll have to clear out his desk at the end of next year. Perricone replaced House GOP leader Ken Sikkema, who, after 12 years in the House, was elected to the Senate last November."Term limits demand that we prepare our newest members to lead us in the future," Perricone said earlier this year as he passed out committee assignments -- and appointed all 41 GOP freshman as either committee chairs or vice chairs.

The Democrats' new leader is Michael Hanley, starting his third year in the legislature. He replaced Curtis Hertel, a Detroit Democrat, who was forced to retire after 18 years in office.

The challenge of dealing with the huge rookie House class is a warm up for 2002 when term limits take hold of the 38-member Senate. Twenty-nine of the current senators more than three-quarters are already lame ducks, barred by law from seeking another four-year term.

"There has been some insider laughter and story telling about the innocent babes and their ways," said Craig Ruff, president of Public Sector Consultants, a nonpartisan Lansing think tank. "But the Legislature has to be looked at as a factory where the product is legislation as opposed to automobiles. And what's rolled off the lineso far hasn't shown any glaring defects. It's early, of course, but so far I'm impressed with the newcomers."

One reason it's been difficult to take an accurate measure of the freshman class is because the members have put aside whatever agenda they may have come to Lansing with to concentrate on fast-tracking the initiatives of Republican Gov. John Engler (himself blocked by term limits from seeking re-election in 2002.)

Engler was blocked from getting many of his key initiatives through last year because of a Democratic-run House. But this year, for the first time in a half-century, the GOP has control of all three branches of state government.

The large group of GOP rookies has helped Engler get most of his priorities adopted by this Legislature with dizzying speed. But from what has been seen, not everyone is happy with the early consequences of term limits.

Among other things, term limits forced the retirement of 16 veteran female House members. While 16 women are among the newcomers, their overall House membership remained at 31.

"This is the first time since at least 1982, when I was first elected to the House, that we have not added to the number of women. That's directly because of term limits." said Maxine Berman, a former Democratic lawmaker who last year helped recruit female candidates as part of her work with the Women's Campaign Fund.

Berman, who wrote a book about her years in the Legislature titled "The Only Boobs in the House are Men," said term limits place a premium on "the old-boys network."

In addition, Detroit lost substantial clout because of term limits. Seven of the city's 13-member delegation couldn't seek re-election. Those departing -- including the House speaker and chairs of the House committees on Appropriations, Judiciary, Labor, Civil Rights, Transportation and Regulatory Affairs -- took more than a century of seniority with them.

This year's group of Detroit lawmakers -- all liberal Democrats no longer head committees. They serve in a conservative, Republican-led House.

"Detroit was devastated (by term limits)" said rookie Rep.LaMar Lemmons III, D-Detroit.

Sen. Glenn Steil, R-Grand Rapids, one of the forces behind the '92 term limits push, now has doubts about the wisdom of that plan. Steil, who was elected to the Senate in 1994, now thinks the law should be changed so that lawmakers could serve a maximum of 12 years in each chamber.

"I made a mistake," said Steil, who added he would not run again, if somehow his longshot proposal to lengthen legislative terms were to be approved by the voters.

One big fear about term limits was that it would give the upper hand to lobbyists, who will remain in their role as lawmakers come and then go. They would have the institutional and historical perspective that term-limited lawmakers would not.

"You lose some good people with term limits, but you're also brooming (sweeping out) some stale people," said Rep. Jennifer Faunce, R-Warren.

"The 34-year-old former assistant prosecutor is among the many newcomers. She said that while she has "tons to learn" she doesn't fear getting bulldozed by the lobbyist corps. "They've been straight up," she said of the lobbyists, noting that most she's dealt with have volunteered the arguments of those with opposing views.

"You'll find out quick enough if they're not honest with you," Faunce said. "And if they're not, you won't take their word again."

Longtime lobbyist Terry Vanderveen agrees with that. He said he's been impressed with the quality of new lawmakers, noting that unlike their predecessors, they arrived as "policy wonks."

"I've heard a lot of not dumb, but naive, questions (from rookies)," he said. "We're certainly no smarter than they are. We just know what happened last year or five years ago."

Vanderveen said it's been a culture shock for lobbyists to have to deal with so many newcomers who already hold positions of power. In the past the lobbyists could take their time getting to know a half-dozen or so freshmen "who didn't do much but occupy fill-in seats on committees.

"Now you have to rush out to meet 64 freshman," Vanderveen said. "It's a little like dating. 'Hi, I'm Terry. What's your sign?' You have to spend a lot of time telling people who you are and what you represent.

"It's fun. But at 49, you don't figure you have to start dating again, " he said.

NOTE: Michigan's term limits law was approved by voters in 1992 by a59-41 margin. Under the law, house members can serve a lifetime maximumof six years -- three, two-year terms. The forced house retirements began with the 1998 election. Those with four-year terms (state senators, governor, secretary of state andattorney general) are limited to eight years in office. Forced retirements for those offices will begin with the 2002 election.



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