Tuesday, January 05, 2010

You'll Have To Do Better Than That, Mark Neumann

Mark Neumann became the first 2010 candidate for governor to respond to public discontent with politics and politicians and put forward some government reform ideas, including a couple of good ones. Namely banning campaign donations from employees of companies bidding for state contracts and not allowing government employees appointed by the governor to engage in any kind of fundraising for the governor. Both should have been done a long time ago.

Others on Neumann's list are not so hot. Such as term limits for state legislators and constitutional officers. This is neither a new idea nor a particularly promising one. Something like 36 states have them for governor and 15 have them for legislators. Enacting term limit laws was all the rage in the early 1990s, but after nearly two decades the experiment has been a distinct disappointment.

In California, some label the state's term limits a failure. The Guvernator himself was once a big fan of term limits but has since changed his mind. Others, like the highly respected Center for Governmental Studies, aren't willing to give up on them but acknowledge that changes in the law need to be made.

Likewise, an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California notes term limits have had some positive effects, like accelerating female and minority representation, but concludes that the law has not fundamentally changed the type of legislator who comes to Sacramento. "Rather than representing a new breed of 'citizen legislator,' however, new members after term limits behave a great deal like their precursors," the report says. It goes on to say "the Legislature is less likely to alter the Governor's Budget, and its own budget process neither encourages fiscal discipline nor links legislators' requests to overall spending goals. In addition, legislative oversight of the executive branch has declined significantly."

Closer to home, Michigan is another state that jumped on the term limit bandwagon. The law didn't bring the institutional change that was hoped for. A Wayne State University professor who wrote a book on the subject concludes that the main effect of term limits in Michigan was to make the legislative branch weaker and the executive branch stronger. She even places a good share of the blame for the state's budget mess on term limits.

One-time supporters of term limits have grown disillusioned with them in places like Colorado and Arizona too.

Mark Neumann is to be applauded for talking about how to make government more responsive to the average citizen. Hopefully other candidates for governor will follow suit. But Neumann and the others will have to offer up much more meaningful change than term limits if they are to have any hope of winning over a citizenry soured on politics as usual.


xoff said...

I'm not a fan of term limits, but can't help but wonder what you find so objectionable about them. You never give any reasons in this post except that they don't make things any better. Do they make them worse?

Mike McCabe said...

Bill, I'm not an opponent of term limits per se, although we already have a mechanism at our disposal to limit terms. It's called an election. Still, I could live with term limits, but not if done in isolation. They are no silver bullet and will surely fail to change a thing if not accompanied by other changes to the way the system works. They are essentially an automatic way to throw the proverbial bums out. But if nothing else changes about the way these offices are filled, the bums who are term limited out will inevitably be replaced by a new group of bums who take just as much money from the very same interests and are products of the same system as those they replace. The only difference will be that the new office holders will be much less experienced.

This has in fact been the experience in states with term limits. They don't provide the breath of fresh air that is promised. The new legislators are remarkably similar to the old legislators, except more wet behind the ears. As a result, they are even more prone to influence by lobbyists, the legislative branch is weakened, the permanent bureaucracy is strengthened, oversight of the executive branch and all of its agencies suffers, and lawmaking becomes more chaotic. All of which makes things worse.

Another effect of term limits in states that have them, curiously, has been intensified partisanship and polarization. As noted by the Wayne State Univ. professor I mention in my post, since term limits artificially created a situation in Michigan where "the only real races are in the primary, candidates have had to play to the extreme base of their party. The leaders are more extreme than in the past, and it has led to legislators having to signs inflexible things like anti-tax pledges that ties their hands in working toward good government." Also not good.

Term limits have done some good, but at too great a cost when you look at the negative consequences. All things considered, I'd rather see steps taken to return us to a truly part-time legislature and, of course, something needs to be done about money's excessive role in the political process these days.