Analysis: Term-limits lead lawmakers to exit early

Sunday, November 8, 2009 | 4:08 p.m. CST; updated 6:59 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 8, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — With term limits bearing down, two Missouri lawmakers have resigned from office within the past two months to accept positions that hold more long-term potential.

The early departures of Reps. Dennis Wood, R-Kimberling City, and Ed Wildberger, D-St. Joseph, will result in special elections next February to select replacements for the final few months of their terms.

Those elections likely will cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Add it to the term-limit tab.

In the past eight years, Missouri has spent around a half-million dollars on special elections to replace lawmakers who left office early for other jobs as they neared the end of their maximum allowed time in the Legislature.

Across the nation, more lawmakers appear to be exiting early than before term limits took effect, said Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks term limits for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"People jump ship when they know that term limits are going to knock them out," said Thad Kousser, a political science professor who has researched term limits and is a visiting scholar at The Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

Missouri is one of 15 states that limit how long people can serve in state legislatures.

Voters in 1992 approved caps of about eight years each in the Missouri House of Representatives and Senate. The clock started ticking with the 1994 elections, meaning it wasn't until 2002 that most veteran House members and some senators were barred from seeking re-election. The deadline hit in 2004 for the remaining senators (those whose first four-year term after the voter initiative began with the 1996 election.)

One of the first to quit early was Rep. Louis Ford, D-St. Louis, who ended his 20-year legislative career in January 2002 as he began what would have been his final year under term limits. His resignation gave Ford's son the inside track on winning the Democratic nomination for a special election.

Other term-limited lawmakers forewent their final state paychecks in favor of new careers in local government or the private sector. Wood and Wildberger both accepted appointments to county government jobs.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, resigned after the 2007 legislative session — a little over a year before term limits would have forced him out — to become the St. Charles County director of administration. The special election to replace Gross cost $168,061, according to records provided by the secretary of state's office.

"When you know that your time in the Senate is up, then you have to start planning — you've got a family to feed and a career to get back on track, so you start saying, 'What am I going to do when I leave here," Gross said last week. "An opportunity came up that I just couldn't turn down."

Rep. Fred Kratky, D-St. Louis, resigned about the same time as Gross. He could have run for election one more time under term limits but instead left to work full-time as the chief executive officer of the St. Louis Association of Realtors. Kratky said the prospect of term limits influenced his switch.

His wife, Michele Kratky, later succeeded him by winning an uncontested special election that cost the state $14,982. Even though that pales in comparison to the cost of some special elections, "that's still just a tremendous expense," Fred Kratky said last week.

Missouri's cost for special elections varies depending on the jurisdiction and whether there are other ballot items, which allow costs to be split with local governments.

Depending on how much time passes between a lawmaker's resignation and a special election, some of those election costs could be offset by the salary savings resulting from a vacant office.

Missouri's number of special elections rose during a roughly eight-year period after voters passed term limits. But the number of special elections that occurred during the most recent eight years (in the era of term limits) is comparable to the total for the eight years immediately preceding the passage of term limits.

Even without the pressure of term limits, some lawmakers left early for other jobs.

"If we have the same number (of special elections), term limits is a convenient excuse for 'I'm tired of this and I can't take it any more and I want something with more security," said Greg Upchurch, a St. Louis attorney who was chairman of the Missouri Term Limits group that backed the 1992 initiative.

If there are additional election costs because of term limits, it's worth it for the sake of rotating fresh faces into public service, Upchurch added.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about half the states elect replacement lawmakers while the other half use appointments to fill vacancies. To prohibit governors from influencing the partisan composition of legislatures, many of those states require the appointees to be of the same political party as the legislators who resigned.

Gross, whose early resignation triggered one of Missouri's more costly special elections, believes his former colleagues should consider some sort of appointment process for filling vacancies.

"They need to have a debate about it," Gross said. "But I think they need to find a way to do it cheaper."

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