Legislators attribute heightened partisanship to term limits

Saturday, May 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — If some Missouri legislators could go back in time, they'd change or remove the limits placed on how long legislators can serve in each house.

It's not that they necessarily want to stay longer, it's that they attribute the increased partisanship over this past legislative session to term limits.

The session was filled with filibustering, personal attacks leveled by legislators and a protest by the House over the Senate's failure to pass one of their economic development bills.

Term limits, which voters adopted by a 75 percent margin in a 1992 constitutional amendment, prevent legislators from serving more than four two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate.

"There is a greater sense of urgency, I think, to really push forward your agenda and legislation you want or, in the reverse, to really put your foot put down and stop bad things from happening because you don't have the luxury of long periods of time here in the legislature like we had before term limits," said Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville.



Some legislators said they think term limits have increased the partisanship and decreased the willingness to compromise.

"The body is much more hyper-partisan because the people spend more time in caucus, finding out how they're supposed to vote and what they're supposed to think," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, the longest serving member of the legislature. "In the days before term limits, the more senior members especially were more disinterested in what their parties thought because they were here to be legislators, not Democrats or Republicans."

With this partisanship, Kelly said, legislators have been less willing to form relationships with their colleagues in other parties. He said this has affected the level of courtesy within the body and even more so the level of respect for ideas one disagrees with.

One instance occurred late Wednesday night during debate on an abortion bill when Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said, "I'm sick of the ethic around here of men that are pro-life for their wives and pro-choice for their girlfriends."

Complaints about behavior

Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, also said this session was unprecedented, at least by what he's seen during his years in the General Assembly, in the behavior exhibited by the legislators.

"This year's the worst that I've ever seen it," Griesheimer said. "The problem is now that you have a lot more members who are unwilling to compromise."

A lack of institutional knowledge is also a product of term limits.

"The other thing is we rely more on the trustworthiness of those established -- government relations individuals and staff persons -- because we have to," Ridgeway said. "We have to come up to speed on a wide variety of issues very quickly, and once again, we can't afford the luxury of spending a lot of time or years delving into a topic."

Need to be creative

Ridgeway said that this reliance may not be a hindrance.

"It may open the door to more creativity because, once again, you can't afford to sit around and do things the way they've always been done if you want to advance a particular agenda. You have to get moving on it; you have to get moving on it now."

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, also said that this is not the problem to worry about.

"You can learn the process quickly," Bartle said. "That's not the problem. It's when you become cozy with lobbyists who will help you raise money for the next election that you have a problem."

Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, disagreed and said the body has become less deliberative since the adoption of term limits.

Some are fans of term limits

The overall effect may not be negative, however, according to Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who said the positive has outweighed the negative.

At a dinner at the Governor's Mansion, Schaefer said Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon told legislators that back when he was a freshman senator and there were no term limits, he couldn't speak on the floor for the first two years.

Schaefer said that freshmen are now treated like any other legislator since term limits have lessened the importance of seniority and that his district — which includes Boone and Randolph counties — benefited from the change in the status of freshmen.

"When you come in as a freshman, you've got to hit the ground running, and you pull just as much weight as everyone else," Schaefer said. "And that allows someone like me to get some of things we got this year and have a good year."

Many legislators who said that term limits have had a negative impact on the General Assembly say that they wouldn't necessarily do away with them all together.

Most of those with this opinion say the limit should be lengthened or legislators should choose which chamber they want to spend their total 16 years. Another suggested that if he could do the vote for term limits over, he'd go for a term limit specifically on leadership positions within the House and Senate.

Bartle, who is unable to run for re-election in 2010 due to term limits, however, said, "I will tell you though, after eight years here, it's time for me to go. I've been here long enough."

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