Pearl Harbor Day for Michigan Term Limits

May 10, 2022 • A Day That Will Live In Infamy

    icon May 16, 2022
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The cynical anti-term limits play has been planned in the shadows for many years, but the sneak attack on Tuesday, May 10th was a surprise even to political insiders.

There are 2 ways a proposal to amend Michigan’s constitution can become a ballot question:

A Ballot Question Committee may gather and submit petitions for a proposed amendment containing original signatures of at least 425,059 registered voters; or the legislature may pass by joint resolution a proposed amendment agreed to by two-thirds of the 148 members elected to and serving in each house of the legislature.

In 1992 a citizen lead group called Taxpayers United for Term Limitations submitted hundreds of thousands of signatures to place term limits on the ballot. Michigan voters adopted proposal B to impose separate term limits on the Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, members of the Michigan House of Representatives, and members of the Michigan Senate by a landslide vote of 2,295,904 yes votes to 1,613,404 no.

Term limits have been the bane of the political class of lobbyists and career politicians ever since. Ordinary people still love term limits, but lawmakers themselves don’t appreciate limits on their own ambitions, and lobbyists hate term limits because they are forced to work to advocate for special interest positions on the merits of each proposal, rather than just invest in a few senior legislative leaders who could peddle influence to their private sector cronies with relative impunity. In the pre-term limits era “King Jake” Jacobetti, a 34-year incumbent lawmaker, controlled the legislature by virtue of his seniority in office, and lobbyists weaponized this concentration of power to manipulate public policy to their own private ends.

Few people dispute that incumbent candidates enjoy an insurmountable advantage for re-election once in office; they accumulate name recognition and monopolize the press, endorsements, and campaign donations while in power. Just after term limits were imposed by the voters, opponents sued in court for the right to re-elect entrenched incumbents indefinitely; they lost.

Last fall they sued again for the right of incumbents to seek re-election and lost again in court. As jealous retribution, ever since the petition drive that imposed term limits on the legislature in 1992, the legislature has engaged in a systematic assault on the petition initiative process itself, making it ever more difficult for citizens to propose laws through direct democracy at the ballot box by making obscure technical requirements even more obscure and picayune.

On May 10 a supermajority of the Michigan Legislature double-crossed the citizens in a stealth campaign to abate term limits on themselves. The complex proposal was drafted and passed within a single day after a special interest group suggested the legislature should help put a proposal to gut term limits on the ballot and bypass the petition drive by a 2/3 vote of the 148 members of both houses of the Michigan legislature. By contrast to the term limits “repeal and replace” petition, fully 19 other ballot question citizen committees are gathering the 425,059 petition signatures needed to place a proposal on the ballot.

The House and Senate leadership accommodated the sponsors of the petition drive and prepared in secret a joint resolution under cover of darkness that same night. The Joint resolution was never printed or published prior to the vote held at 10 AM the next morning. No journalists had a chance to report on the scheme. No open debate was held in this session. There was no reading of the Joint resolution. Immediately after the joint resolution passed on Tuesday morning, both houses cancelled a planned work week and adjourned for the weekend to escape scrutiny.

By engaging in an underhanded and deceitful scheme to gut term limits, Michigan legislators have cast themselves into disrepute and squandered the credibility of the institution they serve.

Not only did the legislature work around the petition signature requirement, but they also illegally combined the term limits repeal and replace proposal with a mock transparency measure as a loss leader in a single proposal. They unlawfully bundled these two unrelated issues together, a practice derisively known as logrolling, against their own rules that clearly state, "The same joint resolution shall not propose an amendment to the Constitution on more than one subject matter.”

Ironically, this blatantly obvious ruse to conceal the true purpose of the anti-term limits sham, the unrelated transparency measure, was added to the conflict-of-interest section of the state constitution. The legislative proposal to gut term limits on themselves only is the ultimate conflict-of-interest; a case of the fox watching the hen house and the absolute height of chicanery. The legislature did not propose to change the current term limits for Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State – only for themselves. This is despite the fact that their “transparency measure” clearly requires disclosures from the Governor,  Attorney General,  and Secretary of State in addition to the members of the Michigan House and Senate.

All of this is buried in obscure language of a shady proposal that is, to quote the late Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cooley in the 19th century Bohemian Oats case about villainy and transparent fraud, “…so cunningly and plausibly worded as to make the worse appear the better to those not skilled in the ways of the world.”   Even the summary of the purpose of the proposal was illegally dictated by the legislature in HJRR, which described the term limits measure in an intentionally misleading way as actually reducing term limits, even after the state already ruled that the measure would actually replace current term limits.

The proponents of this cynical anti-term limits ploy have been forced to concede that the proposal would actually double the number of terms a member of the House could serve (from 3 to 6 terms -12 years) and add 50% extra eligibility for Senate incumbents (from 2 to 3 terms - 12 years).

The political class takes the people for fools, but Michigan voters know this is a blatant power grab being perpetrated on them. The voters know to consider the source (the legislature) and follow the money (the lobbyists) and will push back in unforeseeable ways against self-serving legislators hell bent on advancing their own ambitions.

Politicians may well rue the day they cut in line to sneak this self-serving constitutional amendment proposal on the ballot. 

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