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Research on term limits shows lobbyists, special interests win, while Michiganders often lose

A photograph of the exterior of Michigan Capitol building
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Voters still love the idea of term limits. The idea of “throw the rascals out” after a few terms is supposed to end career politicians and instead give us citizen legislators who are more connected to the people back home.

A new book explains 13 years of research into how term limits have worked in Michigan. Its title is Implementing Term Limits: The Case of the Michigan Legislature. It was written by the husband and wife team of Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and Lyke Thompson.

When the issue of term limits was being debated in Lansing, one of the claims was that "citizens legislators" would be more interested in the common good than self-interest. But the research that Sarbaugh-Thompson conducted told a different story.
"When people have a short time horizon, and they don't have much experience ... they concentrate on things they can fix easily and quickly, and ... they have to try and figure out where to get information on how to do that," Sarbaugh-Thompson said. 

She said the big winners of term limits, according to her research, were special interests and lobbyists, because those inexperienced politicians have to get their information from somewhere.

"Even though voters were promised that term limits would severe the cozy ties between legislators and lobbyists, what we actually found is that legislators are more likely to turn to lobbyists for information," Sarbaugh-Thompson said.

Another finding in the research is that when these politicians come into office, they are more ambitious. But not necessarily in a good way, because they have limited time in office and don't focus on long-term solutions. 

"They want to concentrate on things that are quick fixes, easy to do," Sarbaugh-Thompson said. "Anything that's really tough, they can kick the can down the road and then the next batch of people have to cope with it." 

Listen to the full interview above to hear why term limited politicians are a lot like grandparents who take care of your kids, and why Republican women may have suffered the most from term limits. 

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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