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States with term limits report varying experiences

January 17, 2002
By: Brian Connolly
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - After careers lasting as long as 32 years, one dozen Missouri senators and 75 representatives will soon be looking for new jobs.

Term limits for state legislators were enacted in 1992 after approval from three-quarters of Missouri voters. Ten years later the first effects will be felt as many lawmakers enter their final regular session.

Added on top of pressing fiscal and homeland security issues, Missouri House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa, said term limits could be an element in creating the "perfect storm" this legislative session.

"The effects really vary tremendously from one state to another," said Jennie Drage Bowser, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL).

There have been mixed reports about whether legislators become more lethargic as they near the end of their term, Drage Bowser said. In some cases lawmakers are more willing to take risks, while in other instances the forced exit fosters apathy.

In Maine, which first felt the impact of term limits in 1996, the session before term limits hit saw little change from other sessions, said Sen. Richard Bennett, president of the Maine Senate.

"There's usually a turnover in legislative chambers anyway," he said.

The Arkansas Senate is facing its second straight session where nearly half of its members will be term limited out of office. When term limits were enacted there, half of the Senate was forced out in 2000, while the other half leaves after this year. Arkansas Senate President Pro Tem Mike Beebe, who himself faces term limits after two decades in the Arkansas Senate, said he hasn't seen a change in the amount of activity.

"I haven't noticed any difference," Beebe said. "I haven't noticed that people just kind of slacked off, which was one of the concerns."

That is partly explained by a trend for term-limited legislators to keep their political careers going in new office, said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Government Studies at University of California-Berkeley.

Beebe, for example, is running for Arkansas state attorney general. On Wednesday, Reps. Tim Harlan and Chuck Graham, both Columbia Democrats facing term limits during the next few years, announced they are planning to run for the same state Senate seat in 2004.

"Therefore the same kinds of electoral considerations may come into play," said Cain, who is studying the effects of term limits as part of a project with the NCSL.

If a legislator plans to seek a local or another state office, they won't necessarily become more bold in their final legislative term, Cain said. While that means there's no guarantee lame duck legislators will attempt to get unpopular measures through, it also provides incentive for them to remain active through the end of their term.

However, there's considerable evidence that lame duck politicians are not as productive as those with the prospect of remaining in office, Cain said. That's partly because getting legislation passed can often take more than one session, he said. Also, legislative staffers facing unemployment take other jobs before the legislator's term expires.

"(Another) problem is that often the legislators are spending time either running for office or looking for work," Cain said.

Legislators resigning to take positions in the public or private sector before their term ends has been an issue in some states, Drage Bowser said.

California, which enacted term limits in 1990, had 10 special elections in 1993 to fill vacancies created by legislators leaving office early, Cain said.

"It was a big problem when term limits was first passed," he said. "We had an extraordinary number of special elections."

Missouri already has had a couple of early resignations in the past year -- one in the Senate, one in the House. In addition, two House members have left in the middle of their terms to run for the state Senate.

With legislators now aware of term limits from the time they first run for office, the number of special elections in California has dropped off in recent years, Cain said.

In November, Bennett discussed his term limit experience with Missouri legislators at the Missouri Legislative Forum.

"My basic advice is that legislatures need to do a better job empowering all of their members because you never know who the next Speaker of the House is going to be," Bennett said.

The strength of the legislature is its decentralization, Bennett said, and capitalizing on that is the challenge facing legislatures.

"The real change of term limits, and its strength in my view, is what it does internally to the legislature," he said.