Many people feel that Michigan’s government does not function well. Often blamed for this are term limits, and the fact that Michigan is one of only four states with a full-time legislature. Although it is always tempting to find a convenient scapegoat, this blame is misplaced.
In Michigan, legislators are limited to three (3) two-year terms in the House of Representatives and two (2) four-year terms in the Senate. A concern is that term limits lead to an inexperienced, dysfunctional legislature. However, consider the United States Congress, which is not term-limited and arguably more dysfunctional than the state legislature. According to Gallup, the United States Congress has a 21 percent approval and 72 percent disapproval rating. If term-limits were responsible for legislative dysfunction, one would expect the U.S. Congress to function much better than it does.
During the last election, the Congress had a 19 percent approval rating, yet 97 percent of incumbents were reelected. The problem is that most voters like their own Congressman, yet are dissatisfied with the rest of Congress. If all voters share this sentiment, few incumbents are defeated and an unpopular legislative body persists. Term limits put a check on this by ensuring a regular turnover of legislators.
Another problem is that voters cannot vote for or against legislators outside of their districts, yet voters are impacted by these legislators. Consider the case of Dominic Jacobetti, who represented the Upper Peninsula in the Michigan House for nearly 40 years. As chair of the Appropriations Committee, he was legendary for funneling tax dollars to the Upper Peninsula for various projects. One such project was the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University. Built in 1991, it cost taxpayers $44 million (adjusted for inflation). There is little a downstate taxpayer can do about this, since they cannot vote in Jacobetti’s election. Term limits put a check on this taxation without representation and pork barrel politics.
A part-time legislature is appealing in that it affords more people the opportunity to run for office and potentially reduces the likelihood of frivolous legislation being enacted. A disadvantage is that since the legislature is out-of-session for the majority of the year, the power of the governor, legislative leadership, lobbyists and bureaucrats is increased. Constituents also do not have their legislator to help them navigate the state bureaucracy year-round. There is little relationship between the quality of state governance and whether the legislature is part-time. California, Rhode Island and Illinois have budget crises and they have full-time, part-time and hybrid legislatures, respectively.
State legislatures function poorly because states are constitutionally obligated to balance their budgets. Pension and healthcare costs are chewing up an increasing share of the state budgets, which leaves little room for other forms of spending. Health and Human Services constitutes nearly half of Michigan’s budget with almost half of all births in the state paid for by Medicaid. Until states can get this spending under control, taxes will be high, public goods (such as roads) will be poor, and voters will be dissatisfied.