Analysis: MU professor's study finds fault with Missouri term limits

Sunday, December 18, 2011 | 3:31 p.m. CST; updated 7:04 p.m. CST, Sunday, December 18, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri legislature has returned to the 1920s. It's a flash to the past that is due largely to term limits.

A recent report by an MU professor found that the average tenure of state House and Senate members in the current era of term limits is similar to that of lawmakers who served in 1920s, when state government was much smaller and lawmakers weren't limited in how many times they could seek re-election.

But the historical twist is not a good thing, concluded David Valentine, associate director of public service at MU's Truman School of Public Affairs.

Valentine equated legislative tenure with knowledge, meaning today's lawmakers are less informed about the intricate details of state government despite the fact that it is much more complex than it was during the Roaring '20s.

He concluded that term limits have negatively affected the ability of lawmakers to tackle tough policy decisions, increased their propensity to view their current office as a stepping stone and weakened the power of the General Assembly, among other things.

Term limits have "elevated politics and depressed the value of subject matter knowledge," Valentine said. He added: "I think the results are we do not solve our problems."

The public need look no further than this fall for anecdotal evidence of Valentine's assertion.

Though House and Senate leaders had claimed to have an agreement on an overhaul of Missouri's business incentives and tax breaks, the proposal ultimately floundered and failed to win passage during a special legislative session.

The primary reason is that the House and Senate couldn't agree on the specifics and refused to keep negotiating.

Valentine noted that some lawmakers felt uncomfortable trying to sift through the complex details of the proposal in a compressed time span. He said the animosity between House and Senate leaders also was indicative of a term-limits era in which lawmakers lack the trust and familiarity that develops among long-time colleagues.

Missouri is one of 15 states with legislative term limits.

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.

That means Missouri has now cycled through an entire class of term-limited lawmakers — as those elected in 2002 or 2004 have either used up their allotted time or are entering their final year in their chambers.

According to Valentine's research, the average tenure for a senator in 2011 was 2.7 years, which was several times shorter than the nine-year average that existed in 2001 before term limits forced out longtime lawmakers. The average length of service for a House member in 2011 was two years — less than half the 5.4-year average that existed in 2001.

Those figures were comparable to the average length of service for lawmakers during the period of 1921 to 1931.

As Valentine noted, the state budgets in the 1920s were but a fraction of today's $23 billion budget, and the state at that time had little responsibility for infrastructure, almost no role in social service programs and left economic development entirely to the private sector.

Today, "our society is more complex, our issues are more complex and our government is more complex," said Valentine, who worked in the Senate research office from 1977 until 2001. "You just can't come in off the street and become an effective legislator — and you could in the 19th century."

One of the chief advocates for Missouri's term limits contends Valentine's assessment is wrong because his underlying assumption is flawed.

To equate tenure with knowledge is an insult to the intelligence of many people who win election, said Greg Upchurch, a St. Louis attorney who was chairman of the Missouri Term Limits group that backed the 1992 initiative.

Upchurch acknowledged there is a learning curve to the legislature. But he said it can be sufficiently addressed within a year or two of service.

"How many times do you have to take fifth grade math before you know your multiplication tables? Do you learn more the second time? Yeah, but do you learn twice as much? No. In fact, at some point, you don't learn anything more," Upchurch said.

Whereas Valentine values the expertise that chamber leaders and committee chairmen can develop through years of legislative service, Upchurch considers it an invitation for political coziness and corruption and a recipe for an expanded government to reach into the lives of its citizens.

"I still believe in the Jeffersonian ideal that people can govern themselves, and if you let specialists do it, it's a bad thing," Upchurch said.

Term limits have remained sufficiently popular among the public that lawmakers have been reluctant to embrace measures calling for their repeal.

Valentine said a repeal of term limits is necessary but is not in itself a solution to the legislature's problems. Voters are more cynical and ideological than in the past, he said, and as a result they are less willing to compromise and more likely to view lawmakers with different opinions as controlled by special interests.

So if lawmakers are failing to solve major policy challenges, it is perhaps because they are representative of the people who elected them.

David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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Derrick Fogle December 18, 2011 | 11:52 p.m.

Well duh. Lobbyists don't have term limits. This just makes lawmakers more dependent on lobbyists. In the end, we end up getting to elect which pet to let the lobbyists feed, groom, and train for a few of years.

This is the inevitable result of enacting dumb laws to try to keep ourselves from doing stupid things (re-electing bad politicians).

It's also a brilliant coup for corporate lobbying efforts.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 19, 2011 | 8:37 a.m.

Derrick says, "It's also a brilliant coup for corporate lobbying efforts."

Don't you mean, "It's also a brilliant coup for [all] lobbying efforts"?

Otherwise, you're stating you favor some lobbyists but not others.

(Report Comment)
frank christian December 19, 2011 | 8:47 a.m.

Duh. Lobbyists are salespeople Businesspeople deal with salespeople every day. We people deal with salespeople, but less often. Some prefer to portray our legislators as sheep awaiting "slaughter" by the "lobbyists", then condemn the lobbyist rather than the unscrupulous legislator, with which they endear themselves.

Even if "lobbyists feed, groom, and train for a few of years." our legislators, having to groom and train an eager new legislator every few years cannot be a "brilliant coup for corporate lobbying efforts."

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 19, 2011 | 9:07 a.m.

I believe lobbyists are essential; after all, what legislator can be expected to know everything there is to know? As examples, I'm a chemist and Derrick works with computers; do we really expect all legislators to know and understand the intricacies of both disciplines as applied to the health of our State?

It's not the lobbyists; it's the money and the legislator doing the listening.

I'd rather have rapid turnover of legislators doing too much listening to lobbyists than some entrenched legislator bought and paid for many terms ago.

Having said all that, I am sympathetic to the notion that we lose institutional wisdom with term limits. It's too bad we don't have a situation where all legislators are wise AND impeccable where terms limits never deserve a second thought. But, we don't, which is why we voted for term limits in the first place.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger December 19, 2011 | 11:40 a.m.

Some of you seem to assume that lobbyists are simply innocent, walking Wikipedia, eager to enlighten and inform our hapless, inexperienced legislators. Take a trip down to the capital and get a feel for the good old' boys' club that year in and year out glad-hands and backslaps and cozies up to those who make the laws. It's about the money, not the information.

(Report Comment)
frank christian December 19, 2011 | 1:07 p.m.

H. Ottinger - "It's about the money, not the information." You know that, do you assume that our legislators, do not?

Here, however, is an example of "the money" and it's effect with our government. Keystone, the new oil pipeline Canada to the Gulf, according to Rush, today, will be an addition to the 625,000 miles of pipeline already installed in our country. Environmentalists and unions give excessive millions to gov't legislators (mostly D's) and one entity opposes the line, the other favors it. Our President, asked to determine whether the line should be built or not, while noting that whichever way he decides will cause the cessation of one or the other flows of money, postpones the decision,angering our neighbor to the north, until he has used the money pouring in from Both "lobby's" in the hope of re-election.

The evil lobbyists trying to influence their government are not at fault in this instance. The criminally (imo) corrupt actions of this prez (legislator), most certainly are.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks December 19, 2011 | 1:39 p.m.

If administrator and politicians were the ones writing the laws and keeping them as simple as possible instead of the think tanks and lobbyist groups writing bills we would not need them at all.

(Report Comment)
frank christian December 19, 2011 | 2:29 p.m.

Corey P. - "what legislator can be expected to know everything there is to know?" That is the situation as it is today. Lobbyists are salespeople. With a government now into every a facet of our lives, none of our legislators could navigate without outside help. That so many are criminally inclined is the problem and a whole 'nuther story.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger December 19, 2011 | 5:45 p.m.

Frank: environmentalists would be stunned to know that they give "excessive millions" to legislators. When you're not stalking Rush, take a look at some environmental organizations' financial reports. Then take a look at Exxon-Mobil, Con-Agra, BP, and all of their cousins.

(Report Comment)
Alan Kelly December 19, 2011 | 9:50 p.m.

Prof. Valentine is right on. For Upchurch to say that he thinks legislating is no more complex than 5th grade math, betrays his ignorance of the legislative process. Upchurch wanted to impose term limits in MO for one simple get rid of Democrats who had held their offices for a long time. The R's wanted control of the MO House and Senate, so they passed term limits. And, of course, it worked because R's are far better at messaging than D's. And because many R-inclined voters (who likely don't understand the legislative process any more than they understand 5th grade math) swallowed the R's argument hook line and sinker. Congrats to the R's, they won fair and square....sort of.

(Report Comment)
John Schmidt December 20, 2011 | 12:30 a.m.

All we have to do is look back and we can easily see how much better things are now than they were in 2002. Right?

(Report Comment)
frank christian December 20, 2011 | 9:11 a.m.

Hank O. - I'm sure the not-for-profit financial reports of those groups would sway us all.

"Far from a grass roots movement, envronmentalism is a big business, funded and directed by the leading families of the U.S. and European establishments"

Not exactly germane, but I wonder how their taxes (enviros, oil companies) compare.

(Report Comment)

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