Term Limits Turn Out Majority of Michigan Senate

Some familiar faces in the Michigan state Senate won't be seen in the chamber much longer.

That's because term limits are turning out a majority of senators in the Michigan legislature.

"For the first time since term limits were implemented, they are going to affect the Michigan Senate this year. Twenty-seven out of 38 members of the Senate are barred from seeking re-election," said Leslee Fritz, Communications Director for the Senate Democratic Caucus.

According to Michigan law passed in 1992, any House member elected on or after 1993 is limited to three terms or six years in office.  Any Senate mamber can only serve two terms or eight years in office.

The changes deeply affected the Michigan House in 1998, when 64 of 110 lawmakers had to leave because of term limits. This year, 23 must leave after reaching the six-year limit. This is the first time the Senate has been affected.

"I ran knowing that on Dec. 31st of '02, I would be termed out of the Senate. I have absolutely no problem with that whatsoever," said Republican state Senator Loren Bennett.

But Senate Democratic Leader John Cherry, who has spent 20 years in elected office, does have a problem with being out of a job.

"It seems to me that if someone is doing a good job, is capable and is using their experience to benefit they costituency, if voters want them to continue in office, it ought to be allowed."

And supporters of revising the law say there is a real risk to short term limits.

"People are genuinely concerned that the institutional memory" of the Legislature will be lost because of term limits, said Kevin Kelly, managing director for the Michigan State Medical Society.  "There are a number of issues that are so complex right now that if we mandate inexperience, we aren't giving those issues a chance."

In fact, 59 percent of the 3.9 million voters who cast ballots on the resolution opted for term limits.  To overturn it would require supporters to collect at least 302,711 signatures by July 8, a task they may have trouble completing.

According to a Market Resource poll conducted in March 2001, 38 percent of the people strongly favored term limits, 34 percent supported them but favored extending the limits to 12 years, and 21 percent opposed them.

Another poll, done last November by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA, found that 52 percent opposed repeal and 60 percent favored letting incumbents seek re-election after skipping a term. Both polls surveyed 600 residents statewide and had a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.

But the man largely responsible for putting Michigan's term limit law in place rejected any changes.

"It's no surprise that people in Lansing want to extend term limits for legislators," said economic and political consultant Patrick Anderson of Lansing. "The citizens adopted this amendment in 1992. It hasn't fully gone into effect yet. ... It's premature to change it now."

Michigan is one of 18 states where term limits are being reconsidered.  In Idaho, lawmakers recently repealed term limits, the first state to do so. A March 5 election in California will test the popularity of a proposal that would permit lawmakers to seek re-election after reaching their term limits if they gather enough petition signatures in their districts.

But supporters of term limits say the measure is designed to bring new people into the political mix.

"People want new people, fresh blood coming to Lansing to represent them," said Stacie Rumenap, Executive Director of U.S. Term Limits.

That's not what's happening in Michigan.  Across the hall from the Senate chambers, several House members are capitalizing on vacancies in the Senate.

"Many House members are running for these open Senate seats and I am one, and that in turn creates more open House seats," said Republican state Rep. Tom George.

Some termed-out senate members are running for open house seats or seeking to extend their political careers in other office.

"Currently, I am running for secretary of state, which is a state-wide office. The current secretary of state, Candice Miller, has been term limited also so it creates additional opportunities," Bennett said.

Gov. John Engler, who served three terms because the law went into effect after his 1991 election, is also termed out. But Democratic Attorney General Jennifer Granholm is taking a novel approach in Michigan. She is eligible for one more term but currently is running for governor instead.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.