Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Budget gridlock: are term limits to blame?

cross posted at Michigan Messenger

As the budget embarrassment continues, people across Michigan's political spectrum blame term limits for the intensification of partisanship and profound legislative dysfunction in Lansing. According to Republican and Democratic veterans of Michigan government, term limits have led to ineffective working relationships, a devaluing of public service as a career, and set a focus on running for office rather than governing.

"Term limits don't work, not as short as they are in Michigan. Would you go to a doctor and ask for someone only if they have less than four years experience? Government is complicated," said Bill Rustem, president and CEO of Public Sector Consultants.

"I never liked the idea of term limits in the first place. They've turned out worse than I expected in terms of their impact on the process," said Paul Hillegonds, vice president at DTE who served in the Michigan House from 1979 to 1996. "The artificial term limits make it difficult to deal with complex issues. It sometimes takes a long time to work through an issue. Today you pass the baton before you get halfway through the issue."

Strong working relationships across party lines brought budget resolution in 1983 when Michigan faced a more extreme fiscal crisis than the current one. "I was in state government in the early 1980's when unemployment was 17.5% in some parts of the state. We rallied in a bipartisan way to solve that budget crisis," said David Hollister, who served in the Michigan House from 1973 to 1993 and is executive director of Prima Civitas.

"I think, especially in the House, limiting a person's tenure to six years just isn't enough for people to develop relationships," said Hillegonds.

Michigan's term limits, among the nation's most restrictive at 6 years in the House and 8 years in the Senate, match those in California and Arkansas. Enacted in 1992, they came to full effect in the House in 1998 and the Senate in 2002.

Hollister says bipartisan collaboration was possible before term limits because legislators took time to develop friendships across party lines and shared a commitment to public service as a career. "I have wonderful friends in the Republican party. We served together. We traveled together and socialized. I continue to treasure their friendship. Those kinds of relationships are just not there anymore."

"People saw 20 years in the legislature as positive public service," Hollister said.

Connecting lack of collaboration and the current crisis Rustem said, "The only way things really get done in the political process is through accommodation--finding a common interest between people and building from there. That's what our legislature isn't doing."

Hillegonds sees the problem in an even deeper way--working across partisan difference can help a legislator mature as a policy maker. "With relationships comes a broader perspective. When I first went into the legislature, I had some preconceived ideas, but as I developed relationships and worked through problem solving my perspective broadened. And I think my view of economic development and other issues changed over time."

"I think the best representation is a combination of listening to your constituents, but also informing your constituents about the complexity of issues that goes beyond geography or the predominant philosophy. If a representative can have that dialog with constituents and grow in their own view of the world over time, I think the process turns out better," said Hillegonds.

But in an environment of nearly perpetual election cycles and a focus on winning, that depth isn't possible. The minute legislators "hit their seat they're running for something else. They get into the House and they're running for the Senate. Or they are running for judge or attorney general or governor or county commissioner," Hollister said.

Acknowledging the impact on voter sentiment, Rustem said, "People across Michigan are getting rightly angry at the partisanship. And they should. They should look at candidates running for office and ask are you ready to do something for Michigan or are you just going to worry about the winners and losers in the political sphere."

"It used to be you got involved in party politics to run for office; now you run for office to get involved in party politics. It's backwards. It needs to change," said Rustem.