WHAT OTHERS SAY: Term limits decrease effectiveness of Missouri legislature

Monday, November 7, 2011 | 7:01 p.m. CST

In 1992, Missouri voters kicked the dog. By huge margins, the state followed national trends in limiting state lawmakers to eight years of service in either the House or the Senate.

The vote rose from a national anti-Washington movement, inspired by congressional gridlock that looks positively ambitious next to today's paralysis.

Thirteen states joined Missouri that year in enacting term limits. Most of them followed a similar plan, passing one resolution that applied to Congress and another for state lawmakers.

The courts later ruled that states couldn't limit congressional terms unilaterally, so only the state laws stuck.

At the time, Missouri Secretary of State Roy Blunt, now a Republican U.S. senator, compared the concept to being mad about something but kicking the dog because it was the closest thing nearby.

It's time for Missouri to apologize to the dog.

We argued on Oct. 23 that the Missouri Legislature effectively is broken and suggested three key reforms that could begin to repair it: Drawing fair legislative district boundaries, reimposing limits on campaign contributions and rethinking term limits.

We'll deal with the first two reforms in days to come.

Today it's enough to say that term limits in the Show-Me State have been an utter failure, taking power from the people's branch — the Legislature — and investing that power in the executive branch and unaccountable special interest groups.

The failure has been so spectacular that many early supporters of the concept, including conservative Missouri Republicans, have come to realize that term limits have drained the Capitol of the brain power, institutional knowledge and collegiality needed to push complex issues forward over several years of debate.

In 2009, shortly after he announced that he would not run for reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2010, Christopher S. "Kit" Bond startled some GOP stalwarts at a partisan gathering in Kansas City when he made it clear that he believed term limits were a mistake.

"I think term limits are the worst thing," Mr. Bond said then.

The evidence has been piling up in the Missouri Capitol. Mistakes, such as this year's poorly written Facebook law, sail through the Legislature without much critical examination. A botched 2005 workers' compensation law is causing headaches for injured workers and employers alike.

Former House Speaker Ron Richard of Joplin, a Republican now in the state Senate, has come to realize that term limits are limiting the effectiveness of the Legislature. So, too, has the current president pro tem of the Senate, Republican Rob Mayer of Dexter.

Mr. Mayer and his fellow lawmakersjust finished one of the strangest special sessions in Missouri history. Legislative leaders announced that they had a deal to pass a jobs bill, but the deal collapsed under pressure from outside interests and the lack of trust between leaders in the House and Senate, even though they're all Republicans.

Things got so bad that, at one point in the session, Mr. Mayer couldn't get House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, to return a phone call. The two men have offices on the opposite end of the same floor of the Capitol, and yet they couldn't find time to discuss their differences.

Mr. Mayer blames term limits, at least in part, for creating an atmosphere in which trust is a foreign concept.

"When I first came to the Capitol (in 2001), there were relationships built between Democrats and Republicans, House members and senators," Mr. Mayer said. "That has diminished."

So, too, has the willingness of freshman lawmakers to take the time to develop the base of knowledge that it takes to be able to confront bureaucrats and lobbyists with the benefit of years, even decades, of experience.

"This line of work has a steep learning curve to it," Mr. Mayer said.

Term limits cause inexperienced but ambitious lawmakers to bypass the learning curve altogether. They seek higher office before they're ready. Mr. Tilley, for instance, was first elected in 2004.

He announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor barely six months into his first year as speaker of the House. His top lieutenant, Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, already is the speaker-in-waiting after barely learning the ropes as majority floor leader.

And Speaker pro tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, having been elbowed out of the speaker's chair by Mr. Jones, now is running for secretary of state. His opponent could be Democrat Jason Kander of Kansas City, who hasn't even completed his second term in the House.

In the days before term limits, Mssrs. Jones and Schoeller, both first elected in 2006, wouldn't even be allowed in the room when the veterans would talk about who might be the next speaker of the House.

Instead, they're now leaning on lobbyists for money for statewide campaigns and depending on leaders like Mr. Tilley, a fundraising machine. This reduces the independence and effectiveness of the House. Indeed, the worst evil inherent in term limits is that they enhance the oversized role that political contributions play in the legislative process.

The irony of the 1992 vote in Missouri, intended to overcome the built-in protections held by legislative incumbents, is that two incumbent state representatives got their walking papers from voters that year. The turnover rates in the state House and Senate already were 79 percent and 56 percent, respectively, over the decade leading up to that vote.

As voters proved again in 2008 with the election of President Barack Obama, and in 2010, the year of the Tea Party, citizens can be a powerful force when they are engaged.

Enshrining term limits in the state constitution reduces voters' power instead of enhancing it. The result is a Legislature less able to handle complicated issues of the day.

"A more demanding public beats term limits every day," we wrote in 1991, arguing against the term limits movement. Some who disagreed have since come around to our way of thinking.

Now it's time to follow the example of Utah and Idaho, two states also caught up in term-limit fever in 1992 that undid a change that also turned its Legislature into a dog that can't hunt.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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