March 8, 2010

Twelve-year study by Wayne State faculty shows term limits for Michigan legislators have negatively impacted state

Term limits eliminate expertise, dissolve important checks and balances

DETROIT- State legislators spend less time monitoring state agencies since the introduction of term limits for Michigan legislators - despite the fact that advocates for term limits promised the opposite effect.

Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson

The revelation is just one of several findings in the study by a team of WSU political science faculty led by Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, professor of political science in WSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which was published in the Feb. 2010 edition of the Legislative Studies Quarterly. The study showed the six-year term limit for state representatives and eight-year term limit for state senators have largely failed to fulfill promises made to Michigan citizens who voted the 1992 proposal into effect.

"Many Michigan citizens do not realize that our term limits are among the shortest in the nation, or that only 15 states have them at all," Sarbaugh-Thompson said. "These term limits were sold to Michigan voters on the notion that they would sever close ties with lobbyists and cause legislators to be more independent," Sarbaugh-Thompson said. "In reality, we found them to have the opposite impact."

Research was conducted through four different rounds of interviews with Michigan legislators between 1998 and 2004. In addition to Dr. Sarbaugh-Thompson, the research team included WSU political science faculty members Charles Elder, Ph.D., John Strate, Ph.D., Richard Elling, Ph.D. and Lyke Thompson, Ph.D., director of WSU's Center for Urban Studies, as well as Kelly LeRoux, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Kansas. Based on more than 400 interviews, the team assessed who or what influenced legislators' policy-making decisions as well as how conflicts within their committees and between party members are resolved.

Campaign finance reports were also reviewed to investigate whether representatives' financial relationships with special interest groups had changed from before and after term limits were introduced.

The results of the research show that lobbyists' influence over legislators was not only maintained after term limits were in effect, but may have increased. For instance, special interests' importance as a source of "information and guidance" on a bill about school choice increased after term limits began. Lobbyists were also cited among the top three actors that determined whether a bill reached the floor of the chamber after term limits were in effect.

The study also found that term limits greatly diminished the amount of time and effort legislators spend monitoring state-run agencies, despite the fact they were supposed to increase legislators' independence from bureaucratic influence.

"Even when the governor and the legislators are of the same party, these checks are important," Sarbaugh-Thompson said. "But this research shows that many legislators elected after term limits don't even realize this is part of their job."

Sarbaugh-Thompson believes the problem stems from the limited time that legislators have to understand their jobs, coupled with a lack of veteran legislators to mentor and train incoming representatives. One possible solution to the problem would be to extend term limits for Michigan legislators. "By extending term limits, freshmen representatives would have experienced legislators to mentor them, committee chairs and party leaders would have enough time to develop skills and relationships, while still preventing them from serving for decades.

"In addition, a longer term means that rather than campaigning for their next position, legislators would have a longer time to focus on their current position of leading the state effectively."

Wayne State University is one of the nation's pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information on research at Wayne State University, visit



Julie O'Connor
Phone: (313) 577-8845