Last month, former newspaper publisher Phil Power went off to the Detroit Regional Chamber’s policy conference on Mackinac Island. “The enduring memory I have from it was the widespread scorn for the Michigan Legislature,“ he said afterwards.
“The kindest thing I heard was ‘uninformed and inexperienced.” Others called it “unbelievably incompetent. The institution is broken, he concluded, and not because of anything having to do with policy or political orientation. The main fault, of course, is term limits.
Governing is a delicate and difficult art. Yet the top man in our state House of Representatives is 35 years old, and got the job after being in Lansing less than three years.
That’s not nearly enough time to learn the ropes, much less the complexity of the state government and budget. Yet lawmakers have little choice, since they can’t serve any more than six years. What would you think about a system that said a brain surgeon could only practice for six years, and then had to find some other kind of job?
That would be nuts. But that’s what we now have. Which means our lawmakers all have one eye looking for their next position. That means they don’t want to make any really hard decisions. Accordingly, we will probably have to decide at least six major ballot issues when we go to vote this fall. Having a statewide vote on a major issue isn’t always bad; I think we probably should have one on the affirmative action question. But … dove hunting?
Mechanisms for school financing? Single Business Tax repeal? Those aren’t things the harried voter should have to try and sort out in the booth on her way home from work. That’s the sort of thing we pay our legislators $80,000 a year to figure out for us.
But they are not doing it. The way in which our state budget is financed is structurally defective, and badly needs rebuilding. But the legislature is not tackling that. Instead, they are passing resolutions in support of cherry week, and frittering their time away repealing the law requiring motorcycle bikers to wear helmets. The governor vetoed that last week.
Whatever your politics, we aren’t getting our money’s worth out of our boys in the Capitol Dome. Nolan Finley, of the Detroit News, and Phil Power, who now has a think tank called the Center for Michigan, have an idea.
They think we should try repealing term limits, and move to a part-time legislature. The theory is that we’d get lawmakers who know more and have less time to do damage.
There are problems with that, namely, that much of the time, they’d be working for someone else, who might continue to own them. This much, however, is clear. The present system is expensive, ineffective, and broke. And we voters need to do something to fix it.
Hopefully, while there are still some jobs left.