Gretchen Whitmer was elected to the Michigan Senate just four years ago, but when the next legislative session begins in January, there's a good chance she will be the chamber's longest-serving member — the "dean of the Senate," she says, at age 39.
Whitmer's remarkable rise can be traced to Michigan's strict term limits, which allow senators only two four-year terms and are forcing out most of her colleagues this year. Twenty-nine of the Senate's 38 members are barred from running for reelection, and those who do return next year will have even less Senate experience than Whitmer, who took office after winning a special election in March 2006.
Whitmer still must win reelection in November before she can become the Senate's senior member. She is confident she knows enough to function in that role. "I work hard," she says. "I'm a lawyer. I study the issues." But even the possibility of becoming an elder statesman after just four years, she says, is "stunning."
Term limits will be changing the face of state legislatures in many parts of the country this year, but Michigan's face will be virtually unrecognizable when lawmakers return in 2011. Not only will the turnover in the Senate be the greatest of any legislative chamber in the nation — 76 percent of the senators are guaranteed to be replaced, even without accounting for possible election losses — but 34 of the 110 members of the House of Representatives are term-limited, too. They are required to leave after three two-year terms. Come January, Michigan will have a new Senate majority leader and a new House speaker to go along with a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
"It's a tsunami," says Craig Ruff of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy research firm. Ruff estimates that about 90 percent of the Michigan House members who take the oath of office in January will have served in the Legislature for two years or less. That won't quite be the case in the Senate, where many freshmen will have prior House service. Even so, at least 14 of the 18 current members of the Senate Appropriations Committee will be gone. And they will be gone for good: The eight-year limit is a lifetime limit, not just a ceiling on consecutive terms.
In recession-weary Michigan — perhaps the preeminent national symbol of state fiscal problems — the looming experience gap is causing a deep sense of anxiety over difficult budget years that lie ahead. The concerns extend far beyond the halls of the statehouse. "If you ask the business and labor and civic leadership in this state," Ruff says, "they're terrified."
Similar worries are being heard elsewhere. Term limits will hit many state capitols hard this election cycle, taking away key legislative leaders at a moment of great fiscal uncertainty and staggering budget problems.
In Nevada — which faces a deficit equal to nearly half its projected budget next year — term limits are kicking in for the first time, with one-third of the Senate and one-quarter of the Assembly, including Speaker Barbara Buckley, barred from reelection. Governor Jim Gibbons' loss in this week's Republican gubernatorial primary means that next year's enormous budget shortfall will be addressed by a raft of newcomers. "The next session is not seen as one that would be a great place to learn the ropes," says Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno.
Nationally, 378 legislators in 14 states are term-limited this year, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The list includes 194 Republicans, 180 Democrats and four from other (or no) parties. It is heavy on legislative leadership.
House speakers are term-limited in 10 states: Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Senate leaders, such as presidents or majority leaders, are term-limited in another 10: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Many of these leaders' replacements, meanwhile, will be working with newcomers in the executive branch: Of the 37 governor's seats being contested this year, 24 are open. There is a very good chance that a majority of the governors in 2011 will be just starting out in the job.
No experience necessary?
Legislative term limits are a long-running point of debate in the 15 states that have adopted and retained them since the early 1990s, when they became a popular government reform. In all but one of those states — Louisiana — they were thrust upon the legislature from the outside in the form of voter mandates. Louisiana lawmakers agreed to term limits only after a major corruption scandal in 1995, and since then they have tried, unsuccessfully, to rescind them.
Many state lawmakers, including Whitmer in Michigan, believe that institutional memory is crucial to successful lawmaking, and that term limits have a host of negative repercussions. In no other profession, critics argue, is experience considered a bad thing. As Whitmer puts it, "You wouldn't say your cardiologist should have six years or less of experience."
Norma Anderson, a Republican who served 19 years in the Colorado legislature, is happy to catalog the reasons why she thinks term limits are poor policy, particularly during tough times.
Term-limited lawmakers, she says, have less incentive to get to know each other. As a result, they are less likely to work together across party lines. Lobbyists gain influence because they know more about proposed legislation than inexperienced lawmakers flooded with bills. And backbench legislators have little reason to learn the more complex aspects of the job, such as the details of the budget, because they will leave soon anyway.
In Colorado, "I learned the budget. I knew the budget," Anderson says. "Nobody knows the budget now, except the six people who sit on the budget committee."
But supporters of term limits note that those complaints run counter to the clear will of the public. Voters have proven again and again that they are in favor of term limits, which they see as an effective way to prevent elected officials from turning into "career politicians." That is a particularly strong sentiment in a year of Tea Party candidates and anti-incumbent attitudes. "Most people love term limits. Most sitting politicians despise them," says Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, a Virginia-based advocacy group that has been instrumental in putting limits on legislators in the states that have them. "It's very natural."
Efforts to repeal term limits have regularly fallen flat at the polls, including as recently as 2008, when South Dakotans opted to keep them. While six states — Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming — have eliminated legislative term limits, in each one it was done by the legislature or by the courts.
Blumel, for his part, discounts the argument that experienced legislators are needed during a recession and its aftermath. "When people are first elected, they're not infants," he says. "Very often, they are running for the state legislature after having served in other offices, such as municipalities. And many of the people in one house of the legislature may have formerly been in the other house." The idea that relatively inexperienced state lawmakers are unable to comprehend the budget process or make difficult decisions, he says, is "a caricature presented by politicians who want to keep their jobs."
Not all legislators are opposed to term limits. One supporter is Oklahoma House Speaker Chris Benge, a Republican who will be forced out of office by term limits this year, along with his counterpart in the Senate, Republican Glenn Coffee. In Oklahoma, Benge says, a 12-year term limit has "brought a lot of fresh, new ideas into the system." Told of Michigan's much stricter limits, however — and the huge number of lawmakers who will be ousted this year — Benge says, "Having that kind of turnover in one year might be a little much."