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Shifting regional political power


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Professor Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, with Wayne State University's political science department, has studied and written about the impact of term limits in Michigan. However, she said the geographic shift in power has less to do with term limits than with a concerted effort by outstate legislators to gain influence.

"If you understand a legislature, at best it's a team sport. At it's worst, it's gang warfare," she said "The winners run everything. They decide what bills will come to the floor. In the Michigan legislature, nothing is going to happen that the leadership doesn't want to happen even within the majority party."

Technically, any one of the 110 members of the House of Representatives or 38 state senators can introduce legislation in their respective chambers. However, which bills die in the legislative process before ever coming up for a vote is greatly determined by the Speaker of the House and the Senate's Majority Leader. It is those two leadership positions that decide to which committees a bill will be assigned, as well as the members and chairs of the committees themselves. Likewise, other leadership positions, such as floor leaders, whips and caucus chairs, oversee additional legislative responsibilities, with the greatest power given to those representing the majority party.

Since Michigan's Constitution was rewritten in 1963 to modify statewide elected positions, the House of Representatives tended to have a Democratic majority early on, with Republicans holding more than half of the 110 seats only one term from 1965 to 1995. Since then, Republicans have held the House majority in 10 of the past 13 terms, including the the past four. In the Senate, Republicans gained a majority of seats in 1984, and have held it since.

From a more localized perspective, power can be looked at in terms of geography when considering who holds leadership positions in the legislature and what districts those lawmakers represent on the map.

Sarbaugh-Thompson said that as Republicans in the state gained more power and bi-partisan relationships began breaking down in large part due to the imposition of those term limits out-state Republicans from more rural areas of Michigan began pushing for more influence and power within the legislature.

"There used to be a saying in Lansing in the 1990s and early 2000s: 'north of Clare, it isn't there.' So they didn't feel like they were getting enough attention, and there was a coalition in the House that decided they wanted House leadership from the northern part of the state," she said. "So, within the Republican party, there was this notion that rural voices weren't being heard, and the leadership coalition decided they would get together and get one of their own in there to control the House leadership."

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