Michigan voters passed term limits in 1992 by a vote of 59-41 percent. Since then, the limits have been scorned by the state’s elected officials, interest groups and most Lansing insiders.
A lot of things get blamed on term limits. So I started keeping a list in late 2015, adding to it whenever I hear someone complain about them. I’m sure I missed a social or political ill or two, but here are some things term limits have been blamed for:
- Bad roads and poor schools
- Cancelling the income tax phase-down
- Cuts to revenue sharing and other budget areas
- A decline in state quality of life
- Declining road quality
- Decreased local government power
- Empowering lobbyists
- Fewer legislative session days
- Fireworks law, personal property tax reform, the roads ballot question and the right-to-work law
- The Flint lead crisis
- Introduction of tax cut bills and perpetual office seeking
- Lack of experience and mentors, empowering bureaucrats
- Lack of historical knowledge among legislators
- Lack of movement on auto insurance reform and road funding
- Lack of procedural knowledge
- Lack of understanding of budget and tax structure
- Large refundable tax credits
- Legislator experience
- Legislator quality
- Legislator racism
- School retirement reform legislation
- Lobbyist control of legislature
- Losing the best legislators
- Loss of experience, knowledge and institutional memory
- Loss of relationships that help with complex legislation like auto insurance and Medicaid expansion
- State per-capita income declines
- No long-term fix for Detroit Public Schools
- Poorer quality legislative language and more partisanship
- Possible failure to accomplish Gov. Snyder's late-term agenda
- Refusal to amend PA 51 road distributions
- Relatives running for office
- Scandalous legislators
- Stakeholder oversight of environmental regulation
- The 2015 road deal
Some of these things are clearly fictitious, and others happen in states without term limits.
There are also gripes on the list that are not about term limits, really. Instead, they are lamentations that the position held by the person making the complaint is unpopular.
Regardless of whether lawmakers are subject to term limits, they want to pass laws that have broad popular support. They want things to be easy. If an idea has widespread public support, lawmakers will probably favor it, too. The surest way to get something passed is to ensure that your issue is popular with the public.
If you really care about an issue and it’s not popular enough — or if something passes that you don’t like — it’s hard to admit that what you want is unpopular. It’s easier to blame a procedural thing like term limits for getting in the way.
Consider road funding. Poor quality roads are unpopular but so are higher taxes. It is a conundrum for politicians, but it would be quickly resolved if just one side or the other had broad public support. Yet term limits somehow get blamed for inaction when there is no clear mandate from the people.
The best way to get the policies you want enacted is to shift the Overton Window in your direction. To help your cause, you should know your issue and how it works. Know what people think about it and what can inform them. Figure out what can move people to change their minds. Find compelling evidence, tell persuasive stories. Get your word out.
It’s how we move from a situation where right-to-work was a nonstarter in the eyes of state politicians — as it was in the 90s — to Michigan becoming the 24th right-to-work state.
Shifting the Overton Window is something we try to do. And it’s more effective than complaining about term limits.