Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Toxic term limits plague Michigan politics

LANSING, MI — If you needed another illustration of how bad term limits have been for Michigan, you got it last week.

Lawmakers of both parties voted — nearly unanimously — to first, abolish “driver’s responsibility fees,” and then, to enact a new, $4,900 personal tax exemption, phased in over three years.

You can make strong arguments that both moves were the right thing to do. But the legislators did nothing to replace the lost revenue of perhaps $200 million or more a year, which is likely to make it harder to afford things like education, police protection, and foster care.

This comes on top of a road repair scheme that will soon suck another $600 million out the state’s cash-strapped general fund.

Yet few lawmakers are worried about any of that.

They don’t have to be. They won’t be there to blame when the consequences hit and Michigan becomes less competitive than ever.

That’s because the state’s worst-in-the nation system of term limits means you can serve only six years in the state House of Representatives or eight years in the State Senate — after which you can never come back, no matter how long you live.

That makes it irresistibly tempting for legislators to sweep problems under the rug instead of tackling difficult solutions — especially if you think things will stay covered up until you are gone.

More than two-thirds of the state senators who enacted this bill will be gone forever next January. Probably a third of the House will be gone too, and all will be out in another four years.

Many will be working as lobbyists by then, paid by high-priced clients to try and persuade the next generation of new lawmakers to do what may well be the wrong thing for the common good.

Michigan, by the way, has no law against leaving the legislature one day and going to work the next day for some special interest.

That’s exactly what happened a few years ago, when the chair of the House Transportation committee left office after doing whatever he could to prevent a new Detroit River bridge from being built.

He then immediately went to work for Matty Moroun, who owns the Ambassador Bridge and has been behind all the efforts to block a new one. In many states, that would be illegal.

But in Michigan, that’s too often business as usual.

Now it is, in fact, likely that the legislature did the right thing in getting rid of the drivers’ responsibility fees. They were, in reality, a horrible, regressive tax increase that caused many lower-income voters to lose their drivers’ licenses because they couldn’t pay them.

And ironically, but not surprisingly, term limits played a role in their being enacted as well. Fifteen years ago, at a time when the state desperately needed revenue to balance the budget, the lawmakers were too cowardly to openly pass a reasonable tax increase.

They needed a quick and dirty fix, one whose bad effects wouldn’t kick in till after they were gone.

So they enacted something that sounded like it was meant to morally improve the population — “drivers’ responsibility fees.”

They actually were a surcharge slapped on some people. People, that is, with problematic driving records.

After paying the ticket, such drivers were sentenced to pay a “responsibility fee” of between $100 and $2,000, or lose their driver’s license. Those who could paid, and this has meant new revenue to the state of between $20 million and $100 million a year.

But the law has been a disaster in human terms. According to Michigan Speaker of the House Tom Leonard (R., DeWitt) it has meant 300,000 people have lost drivers’ licenses because they couldn’t pay the charge. The state was carrying $630 million on its books in unpaid and uncollectable drivers’ responsibility fees.

So the legislature eliminated the fees — and at the same time, added a new $4,900 personal income tax exemption, to more than compensate for one eliminated by the GOP tax bill.

Gov. Rick Snyder made it clear he thought this was fiscally irresponsible — but the legislators made it very clear they’d promptly override his veto, as they did on another recent spending bill.

But while the lawmakers engaged in joyous bipartisan celebration, nobody seemed the least bit interested in discussing replacing the badly needed money.

This sort of irresponsibility has been going on since after Michigan voters enacted term limits in a statewide referendum in 1992. This isn’t even the worst example.

That probably happened in 2007, when Michigan was coming to the end of its fiscal year facing a massive budget deficit.

To plug the hole, lawmakers from both parties connived with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, to sell off $970 million in future payments from federal tobacco settlement money for only $490 million — less, actually, when the fees were paid.

Essentially, the lawmakers threw away half a billion dollars of the people’s money to avoid being accused of raising taxes.

Ironically, when voters chose this system of term limits, few were probably thinking of how it would affect the legislature.

Many told pollsters they wanted to get rid of congressmen who had been there for decades, like John Conyers.

But federal courts predictably voided that part of the law, since congressional terms are set by the U.S. Constitution.

Voters could, however, change the rules for their state legislature. Michigan has been suffering the consequences ever since.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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