Term Limits in Michigan: It’s time to ask, ‘How’s that working for us?’

At the age of 32, Tony landed the job of a lifetime. He’d studied hard, worked his way through college at the family pizza business in Midland, completed internships and diligently prepared for his future.

Now he was given the opportunity to fulfill his passion.

Tony proved to be very skilled at his craft. Certainly there was a steep learning curve, but his biennial performance reviews came back positive, with lively discussions of what he needed to work on.

After four years, Tony secured a transfer and was asked to take on additional responsibility in a more concentrated department. He continued to excel, received lots of feedback and consistently delivered the work he promised.

After eight years in this division, Tony had developed a significant network, built strong relationships, had amassed institutional knowledge, knew the process and understood the complexities of the organization. He mentored newer team members and had the overwhelming support of his peers and supervisors.

Then, after 12 successful years with the organization, Tony was told his time was up; he had to go. Not only did he have to leave, he could never do this job again. State Senator Tony Stamas was 44 years old and had been term limited out of a career in politics as an elected official.

Term limits sounded like such a great idea – I know, I voted for them, too. Michigan: It’s time to ask, “How’s that working for us?”

A quick civics reminder: In Michigan, the Legislative Branch consists of 110 state representatives and 38 state senators. State Representatives serve two-year terms, with all seats up for election every two years. State Senators serve four-year terms with all seats up for election every four years. The Executive Branch is elected every four years and consists of the Governor and Lt. Governor (who run as a ticket), the Attorney General and the Secretary of State. The Judicial Branch includes Circuit, Probate, Appellate and the Michigan Supreme courts. The Supreme Court consist of seven justices; all justices are elected to serve eight-year terms.

For this discussion, we will focus on the legislative branch.

In the early 1990s the term limit movement swept the nation. The promise: more accountability, new ideas, younger representation, eliminating complacency with out-of-touch lawmakers and the guarantee of no more “career politicians.” The appeal was just too great; by the end of the ’90s 21 states had enacted term limits.

Since adopting limits, however, six states have either repealed term limits or their courts have found them to be unconstitutional. In 1992, Michigan voters approved one of the strictest term limit laws in the country with a six-year limit for representatives and an eight-year limit in the Senate – plus a lifetime ban of ever serving again.

Twenty-five years later, what does it look like? Let’s use the 2016 and 2018 Michigan House elections as an example. In 2016, of the 110 elected Representatives, 38 were open seats. (An open seat means that there is no incumbent running). So one-third of these elected officials have now been on the job for less than one year. In 2018, when all 110 seats are up for election again, there will be 24 open seats. So, after the 2018 elections we will have at least 56 percent of our elected representatives on the job for less than 25 months.

I’m all for on the job training and I believe that most people who stand up to serve truly want to make a positive difference in our state. However, if this kind of turnover and inexperience were happening in your company, you would question the organization and its leadership.

And we, my fellow voters, are that leadership.

So why do term limits remain so appealing? It’s the story we tell ourselves about “career” politicians. In every other profession, we celebrate experience and aptitude. If you needed an emergency root canal, who would you choose for the job? The enthusiastic newbie or the professional who has honed their craft? Yet we treat our elected officials as if they cannot be trusted and must be punished. Here’s the thing: If you were to ask most voters if they believe term limits work, they will answer with a quick “Yes!” and likely a “Throw the bums out!” retort. Until you ask about their representative, which is usually followed with a, “Well, no I didn’t mean my rep; my rep is good.”

Data show that since 1972, on average, 90 percent of all incumbents are re-elected. Our representative government has a built-in system for change, it’s called voting during our elections. If you really want your elected officials out of office, stop voting them back in.

Should term limits be eliminated? Probably not. Should they be extended? YES! Let’s give our legislators time to gain the experience needed to focus on policy, not politics.

This is Bonnie Alfonso’s final column with the Traverse City Business News. You can find her at the helm of Alfie Logo Gear, involved with the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Association of Michigan, ranting about the importance of voting, and at bonnie@goalfie.com

PS: Tony Stamas is still passionate about pizza and policy; he serves as the vice president of government relations for the Small Business Association of Michigan.