Nessel: If term limits stay, Lame Duck must go

Liz Brauer of Ann Arbor attended the Fight for Our Families rally on Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Last year’s contentious Lame Duck session might be months in the rearview mirror, but Attorney General Dana Nessel still recalls the “pins and needles” she felt during the month of December.

The session, which occurs in the last few weeks of the year after a general election, has frequently been used to quickly pass controversial bills as some lawmakers are on their way out the door.

Dana Nessel speaking in Grand Haven, March 10, 2019 | Nick Manes

Speaking Monday at a Michigan Press Association event in Grand Haven, the Democrat was quick to blame the state’s law term-limiting legislators. In Michigan, House members can serve a maximum of three, two-year terms senators are capped at two, four-year terms. Nessel added that if term limits remain, Lame Duck has to go.  

“I’m just so horrified by what happened in the last Lame Duck,” Nessel said.

She added that Michigan doesn’t bar elected officials from immediately moving from their position into lobbying jobs, although legislation has been introduced to do so. Nessel said she views this as an accountability issue.

“But when you have such a significant number of people who are no longer accountable to the voters and who are maybe looking for their next gig, which might be as a lobbyist, [they’re] representing some entity that actually has an interest in that legislation,” Nessel said. “And, of course, we don’t have anything on the books that would keep you from going right from your current position to working for one of those firms.”

Nessel’s almost 90-minute talk to local government officials largely was intended as a primer on the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA).

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Nessel said that GOP-dominated Legislature last year had essentially gone through her campaign promises and then introduced bills in Lame Duck to prevent her from following through on those promises.

She pointed specifically to her plans to advance PFAS cleanup and increased regulation of so-called “puppy mills,” both of which were challenged by GOP bills.  

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, even puppies? Come on, man,’” Nessel said. “I looked through my list of campaign pledges and it almost felt that way to me.

She did praise former Gov. Rick] Snyder for vetoing “some of the worst of these bills that would have impacted the way that I as attorney general could do my job,” such as legislation that would have allowed the Legislature to intervene in court cases.

“I thought that many of these laws seemed to be unconstitutional and violated the separation of powers,” she said. “It’s not looking with a lens into the future.”

Nessel called term limits “draconian.” Michigan is one of 15 states that has them for state lawmakers and executives and ours are some of the strictest in the nation. Voters enacted term limits almost three decades ago and it would take a constitutional amendment to eliminate them.

Lame Duck protest, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

As long as they remain, the AG suggested doing away with Lame Duck session.

To that end, Nessel has some bipartisan support. State Rep. Gary Howell (R-North Branch) has introduced a resolution to nix the session altogether, although it has yet to be given a hearing.

“There is no way that legislation can be properly vetted during a lame duck session,” Howell previously told the Advance, “especially when we are up more than half the night. Depriving lawmakers of sleep is a totally inappropriate way to round up votes for a bill. As my mother always said, nothing good happens after midnight.”

Other resolutions to vastly limit the types of legislation that could pass during the session also have been introduced, as the Advance previously reported.

Killing Lame Duck would take another constitutional amendment, which takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate — a high threshold.

Dana Nessel addresses MCRC on Feb. 1 | Ken Coleman

Nessel has been asked to issue an opinion on whether the Legislature acted legally in adopting and amending initiatives in the same year.

That involved measures that would have significantly raised the minimum wage and mandated paid sick time benefits. Democrats have launched an effort to repeal the laws.

Nessel touched on the issue, but declined to give a timeframe for her opinion, indicating it was in the works.

“Stay tuned,” she said.

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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