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Term limits and bankruptcy

michiganBy Sandra Svoboda
WDET’s NextChaDetroit.com

Michigan’s term limits are widely vilified for causing damaging turnover, a loss of institutional knowledge, increased power for lobbyists and decreased cooperation among lawmakers in Lansing.

But when Next Chapter Detroit started asking about how term limits have, are and will affect Detroit’s bankruptcy, their effects became debatable and complex.

Political observers and elected officials interviewed had answers starting with “not much” and “that’s an interesting question.” Some said “they make it difficult to navigate” the complex legislative policy environment. Others blamed term limits for a lack of adequate or proper state support for Michigan’s largest city.

“I really think we’ve lost (millions of dollars) because of term limits,” says Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

Enacted two decades ago, Michigan’s term limits apply to the state legislature and statewide executive offices. Representatives are allowed three, two-year terms, while senators, the governor, the attorney general and secretary of state may serve two four-year terms.

In the 15 years since term limits starting having an effect, Detroit has had its steepest decline. That financial collapse is linked to a variety of economic and social factors. But there are also crucial political components in the Legislature related to the city’s run up to, filing of and eventual emergence from bankruptcy that may have gone differently without term limit dynamics also involved.

For example, some of Detroit’s leaders and advocates can’t forgive the state for a revenue-sharing agreement that by some calculations has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. The 1998 pact, described as a “handshake deal” between then Gov. John Engler and Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, dictated the city would cut its income tax rates in exchange for $333.9 million annually for nine years in revenue-sharing funds.

“Many of today’s lawmakers are ignorant of those particular agreements, making them even more susceptible to the carefully scripted narrative that all of the city of Detroit’s financial challenges are self-made instead of taking the time to look at some of the history,” says Ken Cole, the city’s lobbyist. “(The) broken agreements ended up costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars and contributed greatly to the financial collapse.”

Then there was the emergency manager legislation itself. While several cities and school districts have had such administrators installed by both Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Gov. Rick Snyder, the current legislation barreled through a lame duck legislature after voters rejected the previous law in late 2012. The Detroit caucus in Lansing was powerless to stop it, and Kevyn Orr arrived in the Motor City a few months later. The Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing happened mid-2013.

The next legislative battle could be over Snyder’s budget proposal to provide $17.5 million a year for 20 years to Detroit, a proposal he has been lobbying for since he proposed it to the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee Feb. 5.

Bruce Timmons, former legal counsel for the Michigan House Republicans, says even with his own party in power, the governor has a tough challenge. “Sadly I think there is still an anti-Detroit bias, there has been for a very long time, among Republicans,” says Timmons, who retired last year after more than four decades as a legislative staffer.

He posits the limits imposed on legislators curtail the time they can spending learning, understanding and perhaps sympathizing on complicated issues. “If you’re there long enough, you get a chance to really broaden your understanding. You get to know what’s going on,” he says.

With relatively weak representation, as compared to past eras, the Detroit caucus arguably does not have the power to shift political will in the Senate and House to approve such funding. Outstate legislators fear backlash in their home districts, assuming voters’ short memories wouldn’t allow “forgiveness ”at the polls for a pro-Detroit stance on funding matters.

“They don’t know they can make a tough vote and survive,” says Bill Nowling, Orr’s spokesman, who worked as a legislative staffer in Lansing in the 1990s.

But Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, cautions against assigning too much blame to term limits for how Detroit is perceived and treated in the state capitol.

“The Michigan Republicans completely run the show from out state, and despite the fact they may give lip service to what’s going on in Detroit might be helped, I’ve got to tell you, there isn’t much sympathy for Detroit in the legislature today,” he says.

While Democrats have seen their influence slide with Republican majorities in both chambers, Detroit has seen its representation there cut in half as the city’s population loss is reflected in its number of legislative positions.

In the 1960s, Detroit’s representation peaked with 24 representatives and 9 senators with districts drawn entirely or primarily in the city. Today, says Zachary Gorchow, editor at Gongwer News Service, there are just 10 house and five senate districts with exclusive or significant Detroit geography.

“The biggest factor that’s hurt Detroit has been you’ve got so much less representation now than you had 30 or 40 years ago,” Ballenger says.

Numbers withstanding, term limits researcher Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson says the post-limits environment has changed how individuals interact and relate to each other, which affects how deals are done.

“There used to be friendship networks that were quote elaborate groups of friends who would be across party lines. They had opportunities where they could sit down and get a deal done,” says Sarbaugh-Thompson, a political science professor at Wayne State University. “None of these clusters of friends are bi-partisan now. Those bi-partisan clusters have vanished. They’re gone.”

With the Detroit caucus entirely Democratic and both chambers with Republican majorities, Sarbaugh-Thompson finds little cooperation happening on highly charged, partisan or complicated issues.

And Detroit-related legislation is nothing if not that, term limits or not.

The Michigan Citizen is a member of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, a project to focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy. The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers of which the Michigan Citizen is a member. www.detroitjournalismcooperative.com.

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