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Published: Friday, 6/30/2006

Michigan legislature undone by term limits

LANSING, Mich. The Michigan Legislature is winding down its session this week, moving to a reduced schedule to give members, most of whom are running for re-election, time to campaign. No, they haven t finished the state s budget yet.

No, they haven t come up with a way to replace the $1.9 billion in lost revenue from the Single Business Tax, which seems certain to be repealed, either by the lawmakers or the voters.

They did, however, pass resolutions honoring state cherry week. And they passed a bill to allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets, to the horror of every health care and insurance professional in the state, all of whom saw a future filled with closed-head injuries.

This was, of course, a further waste of time. The governor vetoed the no-helmet legislation, as she had said she would. So while there is still some time to fritter away, will the 93rd Michigan Legislature go down as one of history s most significant?

John Lindstrom, who has covered the Capitol for Gongwer News Service for nearly two decades, put it succinctly: No.

Phil Power, a longtime newspaper publisher who is now running a new think tank, the Center for Michigan, heard many less kind responses a month ago, when he was at the movers and shakers annual conference on Mackinac Island.

He found something approaching near-universal contempt for the Michigan Legislature, a feeling that transcended ideology. The kindest thing I heard was uninformed and inexperienced. Others called it unbelievably incompetent. Some used terms that couldn t be printed in the newspaper.

Why are the lawmakers held in such low esteem? Mainly, term limits, which mean that the moment someone begins to become competent, they are banned from serving for the rest of their lives. That is why the speaker of the Michigan House, a Republican named Craig DeRoche, is only 35, and got the chamber s top job after less than three years in Lansing.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, a shrewd, knowledgeable politician, is busy trying to line up his next job. As of Jan. 1, he has to leave the state Senate for life. In January everybody else will be gone who came to the state Senate or the state House before 2003.

That means little or no institutional memory in the legislative caucuses. Nor is their much detailed knowledge of how things work. Stories are common of freshman lawmakers asking embarrassed reporters, say, or patient staffers, if they are doing things according to correct parliamentary procedure.

Lobbyists and bureaucrats have correspondingly gained more clout, which may be a good thing for them, but which many think is a bad one as far as democracy is concerned.

And campaigns cost more and more. State Rep. Chris Ward (R., Brighton) is the latest to take up the cause of campaign finance reform. He wants to put new limits on so-called soft money and require more frequent disclosure of spending.

He also would call for the state to do random audits of campaign committees. Those ideas have gained some grudging bipartisan praise. But most of his reforms seemed clearly meant to help the Republican Party. He would seek to limit the activities of union and Native American groups, for example.

Other abuses wouldn t be touched. Last week, it was learned that the wife of a Detroit-area contractor sent a $40,000 contribution to an influential GOP state senator in a district 250 miles away.

Naturally, it must be pure coincidence that her husband does millions of dollars in business with the state every year. Mr. Ward admitted his bills would do nothing about that.

And Mr. Ward himself came under fire last year when he tried to get a bill passed that would have made it illegal for Michigan wineries to sell directly to customers without involving a wholesaler. Who was the biggest contributor to Mr. Ward s last campaign? None other than the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association.

Phil Power, whose new think and do tank, is aimed at crafting solutions to Michigan s problems, thinks it might be a good idea to repeal term limits while moving to a part-time legislature. That would give Michigan, he reasons, lawmakers who know more, but have the potential to do less damage.

Don t, however, expect to see the legislature happily flocking to adopt any idea that cuts lawmakers salaries or power.



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