Election tests term limits

State Rep. A.T. Frank will have to find a new job by the end of the year -- but not by choice.

Sunday, October 6, 2002
By Barrie Barbor
The Saginaw News

Term limits will force the Saginaw Township Democrat to step down after three terms, or six years, in Lansing, and Frank is not happy.

Voters already had the option to end a politician's career before the law went into effect in 1992, he said.

"We have term limits every time we go to the ballot box," the 36-year-old lawmaker and attorney said.

The mandatory rule takes away the choice of the people, he said.

Backers say the limits have opened the system to more people and ideas, but detractors contend it's meant a loss of institutional knowledge and a shift in power favoring lobbyists and bureaucrats.

Political experts say the jury on whether term limits help or hurt democracy is still out.

"The public has no way to judge whether term limits are good or bad because there has been no major catastrophe yet," said Ed Sarpolous, a pollster for Lansing-based EPIC/MRA.

"They have not killed us or made us stronger," said Michael J. Hanley of Saginaw, who had to step down as state House Democratic leader in 2000 because of term limits.

Hanley now is running against state Sen. Michael J. Goshka, a Brant Republican.

State representatives may serve for three two-year terms, state senators, the attorney general and secretary of state for two four-year terms, and the governor for three four-year terms.

Thus far, the limits seem to deliver on promises proponents made, contended Joseph Lehman, an executive vice president with the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland.

"Voters have vastly larger choices of candidates in the party primaries than they did before term limits," Lehman said.

People with more real-world experience have an easier time of making it into the Legislature, he added, dismissing the argument that a year working for the government is more valuable than a year spent in the private sector.

A teacher or a principal, for example, has more experience in education than a lawmaker does serving on an education committee, he said.

Studies show term limits have brought more candidates into the political arena, but it hasn't necessarily meant more women and minorities in office nationally, said Robert A. Kurfist, a Delta College political science assistant professor.

It has embolden legislators, however, to act more like mavericks, he said.

"They realize their time is short so they try to stake out independent positions rather than party positions," Kurfist said. "Party discipline has eroded considerably."

The new-found independence has meant lawmakers introducing more bills in general and more dealing with controversial topics, such as abortion, capital punishment and gay marriages, he said.

Hanley said the rules have meant reductions in state education funding, the adoption of the 23-year phase out of the single business tax -- which he said has blown a hole in the state budget -- and less fear of accepting pay raises.

"People seem to be making decisions they won't have to deal with the results of," he said.

Saginaw County Democratic Party Chairman Gary L. Shepherd says the limits translate into a loss of institutional knowledge and more power to bureaucrats and lobbyists.

"It would be like a college football team with 60 percent of the team being freshmen," he said. "It just doesn't work. The learning curve doesn't work.

"The effect of this, to be quite frank, is a runaway Legislature. The last term of office, the elected official or the politician has no incentive to do what is best for his or her district."

Lehman doesn't buy it.

"That's exactly what you would expect someone who has spent a large part of their career in the government sector to say," he said.

A break with party loyalty has actually made lobbyists' jobs harder, Kurfist said.

"They basically have to go after just about every independent legislator," he said. "The whole game has changed. The idea of locking someone on your side and locking them in for an individual career is gone."

Saginaw County Republican Party Chairman Daniel A. Herzog fears the limits will make it harder to keep qualified legislators on the job.

"If you have a quality person who is doing a quality job, you are forcing them to leave," he said. "With the landscape right now, it is harder and harder to find quality people to run for public office because of time demands and the cost to win election."

Still, he remains undecided on the overall impact.

Goschka said he reluctantly supported term limits a decade ago "because it seemed like there were some rascals you just couldn't get out."

Now, he said, he wants to see legislators terms extended to 12 years for both the House and Senate because of the time needed to learn the job.

"Term limits remind me of a revolving door," he said. "People coming in and people coming out."

In the Senate, 27 of 38 seats are up for grabs this election.

"If we were to lengthen term limits we would have a much more cohesive and responsive (Legislature)," he said.

Hanley says term limits are a survivable system, but not the best system.

It will take a few more election cycles and the departure of long-term Republican Gov. John Engler to sort through the impact of restrictions on time served in office, Lehman said.

"If people are really interested in knowing the true effects of term limits they can't judge term limits before they fully kick into gear," he said.

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Barrie Barber covers politics and government for The Saginaw News. You may reach him at 776-9725. This story appeared in the October 6, 2002 Saginaw News.

Copyright 2002 The Saginaw News.

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