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Michigan Legislature 101: Checks and Balances

When people think about politics, Washington, D.C., oftentimes comes to mind. But what about Lansing? The reality is, many of the policies that affect Michiganders’ daily lives the most are decided in the state legislature, particularly when it comes to energy policy.

The legislative process can be a bit wonky, so we’re breaking down the basics to help you better understand how our policies are made—and why advocating for energy policy can sometimes be such a lengthy and complex effort.

The Composition of the Government

Checks and balances exist in Michigan just like they do in Washington. Three governing entities determine which policies are enacted and how they are implemented: the legislature, the governor, and the courts.

The Michigan legislature is bicameral, a fancy term that means there are two houses in the legislature: a Senate and a House. The Michigan Senate has 38 members and the Michigan House of Representatives has 110. Michigan state representatives serve two-year terms and their districts are determined by population. Michigan state senators serve four-year terms.
The governor of Michigan, currently Rick Snyder, is limited to two four-year terms and is responsible for signing (or vetoing) laws passed by the legislature, proposing budgets, and appointing judges to the courts, among many other things. Additionally, the governor establishes a larger policy vision for Michigan, presenting his priorities and vision for where the state is headed each year in his State of the State address.

The courts of Michigan are divided into six different bodies with varying degrees of responsibility. The highest court in Michigan is of course the Supreme Court, followed by the Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts, District Courts, Probate Courts, and Court of Claims. Political and legal decisions work their way up through the court system. While the Court of Appeals hears the most cases, the Supreme Court is in place to give the final legal call on important policy debates when there is a question of whether those policies conform to state and/or federal law.

Fun Fact: the youngest governor in United States’ history hails from Michigan. Stevens T. Mason was elected governor of Michigan in 1835 at just 24 years of age.

The Term Limit Debate

One thing that is unique about the Michigan legislature is term limits. More than 20 years ago, the Michigan Constitution was amended to put term limits in place to prevent career politicians from having too much power or overreach. In 1992, Michigan residents voted in favor of the term limits, restricting a candidate to serving two four-year terms in the Senate and three two-year terms in the House. The governor, attorney general, and secretary of state are also limited to serving just two four-year terms.

Some argue term limits prevent well-intentioned public servants from developing the expertise necessary for effective change, and they can disrupt the development of policies that involve years of negotiation among many different stakeholders. Despite both positives and negatives, the bottom line is that term limits in Michigan are here to stay for the time being.

This year’s election is particularly interesting; because of term limits, 26 seats in the Senate and 25 seats in the House will be open, not to mention the 20 plus other House seats up for grabs as legislators pursue other offices. It’s anyone’s game and will likely be contentious given the current political landscape, both nationally as well as locally.

The Role of the State
Henry David Thoreau once stated: the government closest to the people governs best. Michigan’s government in Lansing makes critical decisions that impact Michigan families and individuals every day. Michigan elected representatives work hard to understand the unique challenges our state faces, whether in the energy sector or beyond.

Be sure to keep an eye out for additional blogs in this series to learn more about Michigan’s legislature and how the decisions that affect you are made.