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State senator changes his tune on term limits as his own deadline looms

Jack Lessenberry

By all appearances, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof likes wielding power. He’s been in the Michigan Legislature for a decade, and he has been a strong, if controversial, leader of the Senate for more than two years now.

But in little more than a year and a half, his political career will be over—probably forever. Term limits mean he won’t be able to run for re-election to the state Senate.

The congressman in his district, Republican Bill Huizenga, is nine years younger than Meekhof, and he doesn’t show any sign of leaving. Meekhof at one point showed some slight interest in running for governor, but quickly found out that he’d have little support.

Running for secretary of state next year could be awkward since he’s spent a lot of time blocking any attempt to make it easier for people to vote. He doesn’t have a college or a law degree, which means being attorney general is out of the question. So, he’s probably checkmated.

And lo and behold, now that he’s about to be forced out of his job, Meekhof suddenly thinks that term limits, at least as they now stand, are a bad idea. He told a group of reporters earlier this week that they are “a failed social experiment.”

Based on his remarks, Meekhof seems to have discovered what everyone else in Lansing has known for years: Term limits mean that legislators can, and do, kick the can down the road, delaying problems rather than solving them.

Politicians have figured out that you can stitch together a comparatively easy fix that will prevent things from totally collapsing for ten years, and so that’s what they do. After all, why worry about long-term consequences when you won't be there when the crisis comes?

Plus, term limits may well have lowered the caliber of people willing to run for the Legislature. How many people are going to fight hard and spend a lot of money for a job that they have to give up forever in six or eight years?

Everyone who understands how government works knows that term limits have failed. But they are still popular with the public, who voted a quarter of a century ago in favor of amending the state constitution to require them.

Actually, most of the voters thought they were voting primarily to limit the terms of congressmen. I interviewed suburbanites who gleefully thought they’d found a way to rid themselves of John Conyers at last. The federal courts immediately struck down that provision, but left the ones limiting state office holders in place.

And sadly, they aren’t likely to be repealed anytime soon. Lobbyists and special interests love having a constant flock of new, naïve legislators they can influence and control.

Plus, when you look at some of the lawmakers we’ve got, it’s hard to build support for eliminating any rule that ensures they’ll be gone soon.

Candice Miller, the former congresswoman who is now Macomb County’s public works commissioner, recently remarked that “term limits can’t come fast enough for some people.”

She was talking, ironically, about her fellow Republican Arlan Meekhof, after he blocked an attempt to use state money to help protect our water from the effects of the famous Fraser sinkhole.

Sometimes, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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