April 25, 2006
Term Limits Take Out Legislative Leaders
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Term limits will shake up the leadership in 13 statehouses as 268 state legislators - including more than 125 floor leaders and committee chairs — are forced from office this year.
Hardest hit will be Nebraska, where term limits will take effect for the first time. Twenty of the 49 members of its nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature must leave, including the speaker and the heads of a dozen committees. The Montana Legislature will lose the greatest number of top leaders; the Senate president and the majority and minority leaders in both chambers are among 21 term-limited lawmakers.
The number of lawmakers barred from seeking re-election in November is only a fraction of the 6,200 legislative seats on the ballot this year, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures . But some politicians and academics contend term limits are stripping certain statehouses of their institutional memories, giving greater influence to the executive branch and lobbyists, and intensifying partisanship.
Paul Jacobs, a senior fellow at the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits , counters that requiring lawmakers to step down - most commonly after six or eight years — redistributes the legislative power that used to be concentrated in a small number of entrenched leaders. "I don't think people want iron-fisted dictators ruling their legislature," he said.
Between 1990 and 2000, 21 states adopted limits on how long politicians could serve in the statehouse, all but one by ballot initiative. Louisiana lawmakers voted in 1995 to bar legislators from serving more than 12 years in a single chamber after some members were videotaped accepting campaign contributions on the floor of the Legislature.
However, term limits have been repealed by legislatures or state courts in Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Legislative term limits are now in effect in 13 states: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Term limits become effective in Louisiana next year and in Nevada in 2010.
No state has enacted term limits since 2000. But their impact will be felt this election year in several capitals including Sacramento, where nearly a third of the California Assembly and 30 percent of the Senate are leaving this year. In Arkansas, 29 percent of House members cannot run for re-election, and nearly 21 percent of the Michigan House will be forced to leave office.
In Montana, where the Legislature meets for just 90 days every other year, term limits have given more power to the governor and to executive agencies, said Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan (R), who is term-limited after 16 years at the Statehouse.
In states with term limits, lobbyists also play a greater role in informing — and sometimes deceiving - legislators, said Keenan, who is seeking the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. Because lawmakers have less time to become experts in policy areas, they rely more heavily on lobbyists, he said.
Another effect is that brash, less-experienced legislators no longer feel tempered by senior colleagues - and the result is a decline in legislative civility, he said. "We've seen an increase in hard-core partisanship and ideology."
But Art English, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, said the steady turnover in his state's Legislature has given the elected floor leaders more influence.
Although term limits ensure a steady supply of open seats, incumbents who are not limited are rarely challenged, English said.
Jacobs, of U.S. Term Limits, said term limits remain popular with voters. Ballot initiatives to weaken or undo limits have failed in several states, including Arkansas, California, Michigan and Montana, he noted.
He said lobbyists often are the most vigorous opponents of term limits, and he rejected the contention that legislative term limits enhance a governor's power. "If a legislator says 'I'm not smart enough to stop the governor,' the answer is not to get rid of term limits but to elect a new legislator," Jacobs said.
Nine states with term limits allow state lawmakers to run again for the same seat after sitting out for two to four year: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.
The other six states with term limits are stricter and bar lawmakers from returning to the same chamber once they've served their limit. In both cases, legislators forced to retire from one house may run for a seat in the opposite chamber.
Thirty-six states limit gubernatorial terms, with all but two allowing two consecutive terms or eight years in office. Governors may serve 12 years in Utah, and Virginia is the only state that does not allow its governor to seek a second consecutive term.