Idaho Lawmakers Act To End Term Limits
By Marcia Franklin, Special to Stateline
Idaho often ranks near the bottom of lists measuring trends in state government. But lawmakers here may now be able to claim a first.
That's because both Idaho's House and Senate voted to repeal a term limits initiative passed by voters in 1994, and went on to override Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's veto. In doing so, Idaho became the first legislature in the country to overturn a term limits initiative.
(HB 425 can be found at: http://www3.state.id.us/oasis/H0425.html)
House and Senate leaders, who, like Kempthorne, are Republicans,had mounted a legal challenge to the initiative, but did not prevail in a case that went all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court. So they decided to just take the law off the books, saying they felt voters were duped by campaigns waged by groups like US Term Limits.
"If I truly thought that this was a grass roots movement that came from the people of Idaho, I wouldn't be here," says House Speaker Bruce Newcomb. "But I don't believe it is. I think it was something that was brought to us by outside interests."
According to Jennifer Drage Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight other statesArizona, Arkansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon and Utahhave tried to overturn term limits, but have failed.
If Idaho lawmakers are able to overturn a gubernatorial veto, "I suspect other states might see Idaho as a successful example and try it again," says Bowser.
The term limit initiative would have taken effect with this coming election cycle, covering county commissioners and school board members initially. State lawmakers, as well as other county and city officers, would have felt the effects of term limits in the 2004 election.
Voters not only approved the initiative in 1994, which included federal candidates, but also gave a thumbs-up when asked again in 1998 whether they supported the idea for local and state officials.
That, say term limits supporters, should be enough. "How many times do we have to say yes before you listen to us? asked Sharon Ullman in her testimony on the measure. Ullman is an Ada County Commissioner, one of the few local officials to testify in favor of term limits.
The fight has produced some vitriolic comments, with Senate Majority leader James Risch calling the term limits movement "poison and filth from back East." Risch alleges that he was bribed by a term limits supporter to change his vote. For his part, north Idaho stockbroker and term limits backer Don Morgan has likened the repeal process to "watching someone be mugged. This was Lady Liberty being gagged," he says. (see a full interview with Don Morgan at: http://idahoptv.org/idreports/exclusive.html)
Almost a third of the votes against the repeal came from Idaho's tiny Democratic faction, which number only 12 between the House and the Senate. In part, they say, they're voting against the repeal as a statement about the overwhelming power of Republicans in the state.
"As members of the majority party, I think you look at things differently," Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett said in debate. "I think you need to recognize how difficult it is to pass legislation and have your voice heard. The people have spoken."
But Boise State University Professor James Weatherby doesn't think term limits will help Democrats that much, in a state that votes overwhelmingly Republican.
"If there is electoral fallout," says Weatherby, "in most cases it will be in the Republican primaries. We could have even more conservative Republicans elected."
It is that potential challenge from the far Right, says Weatherby, that may also be behind Governor Kempthorne's promise to veto the legislation.
"He might have been challenged by a more conservative candidate, like (former U.S. Representative) Helen Chenoweth, who is a term-limits supporter and has access to a lot of soft money" from groups supportive of that cause, says Weatherby.
If the House and Senate override the gubernatorial veto, term limits supporters say they will once again go to the ballot with another initiative. And, they say, they will target those lawmakers who voted against them.
"Where we stand right now is we're eyeball to eyeball with the legislature, and someone's got to blink," says Dennis Mansfield of Voice of the People.
Those who are against term limits welcome the electoral debate.
"It's time the people of this state quit passing the buck, get off their collective posterior and work like hell to remove someone from office if they don't want them there, rather than rely on some automatic, arbitrary mechanism to do what they should do themselves," says Erik Heidemann of the Boise State University College Republicans.
Marcia Franklin is the reporter and host for "Idaho Reports," Idaho Public Television's legislative program.