Analysis: Term-limits hit third of Missouri lawmakers

Monday, December 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The turn of the calendar to 2010 will mark the beginning of the end for about one-third of the members of the Missouri General Assembly.

Does that make you nervous? It does for some of them.

Some lawmakers are concerned about a lack of long-range thinking in the Capitol as fewer legislators remain with any personal recollection of the way things worked in the past. Others are concerned about a potential decline in decorum, as exiting lawmakers jockey for higher office or feel freed to pursue personal objectives.

Term limits will prohibit 52 of Missouri's 163 House members and 10 of its 34 senators from seeking re-election in November 2010. Several more will voluntarily forgo a shot at serving another term. Some will instead pursue different public offices.

The upcoming election will mark the second largest turnover since Missouri voters passed a 1992 law limiting politicians to eight years each in the House and Senate.

That clock began ticking with the 1994 elections, leading to the first mass exodus in 2002. In those elections, 73 representatives and 12 senators were barred from seeking another term in their respective chambers. But because of retirements, redistricting and defeats, the turnover proved to be even greater in the House, where 91 new representatives were elected in November 2002.

Some members of that large freshmen class left early. But for the rest, 2010 will be their time to bid goodbye.

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley expects the upcoming session to be challenging. Some Republicans could spar with fellow Republicans — and Democrats do likewise — as term-limited House members from neighboring districts compete for the seats of term-limited senators, Tilley said.

"It will probably bring a heightened tension on the House floor," said Tilley, R-Perryville.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler also is bracing for trouble. Eight of the 10 senators term-limited in 2010 are Republicans. Of the 10 additional senators term-limited in 2012, seven of them also are Republicans.

"Over half my majority is term-limited, and most of them aren't running for higher office, so they have no responsibility to the voters," said Engler, R-Farmington. "Some things that would be tempered before will not be tempered now, because their objective is: 'So what? You sure don't care what the public thinks. I can kill everything if I want, because I'm not up for election.'"

Legislative leaders voiced similar concerns heading into 2002. Then-House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa, forecast a stormy session.

"Part of that perfect storm is that we are short of money, and on top of that you have about 80 House members who are term-limited who could have bad attitudes. You know, 'This is my last year, they're kicking me out, I might as well go play golf,'" Kreider said at the time.

But the storm wasn't that bad.

Although a few lawmakers complained privately that it was harder to spark the interest of some term-limited colleagues, other lawmakers said as the 2002 session drew to a close that the onset of term limits made them work harder to leave a mark on Missouri.

Gov. Jay Nixon, who served as a senator in the pre-term-limits era, said he hopes the current lawmakers also will want to leave a mark — not merely mark time — in their final session.

"I'm hoping that I will be able to call on their higher motives," Nixon said.

"When I think about that time being in the state Senate, I think more about what we did than what we stopped; I think a lot more about the personalities of the people around me, not the party; I think a lot more of the kind of challenges we dealt with," Nixon added.

Among those entering his final session is Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, who had spent 12 years in the House before term-limits spurred him to run for the Senate in 2002.

Shields, R-St. Joseph, said he wants to pass legislation requiring his successors to follow some sort of long-term planning process.

"At best, state government has been a fairly shortsighted operation for many years," Shields said. "But I think with term limits, it amplifies that."

EDITOR'S NOTE: David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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