Report Chronicles Downside of Term Limits

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Statehouses under term limits are growing less diverse, less powerful and less civil, according to a new study by three non-partisan organizations that support state lawmakers nationally.
 
"Term limits in states have done more to limit rather than enhance the effectiveness of the legislative branch," Karl Kurtz, director of state services at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and a lead researcher in the study, said during an Aug. 15 press conference at NCSL's annual meeting here. The Council of State Governments and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation also contributed to the study, as did nearly a dozen political scientists from across the country.

"Instead of leveling the playing field between the legislative and executive branches, term limits have weakened the legislative branch in relation to executive power," Kurtz said. This power shift is most apparent in the budget-making process, he said.

At the same time, many of the 13 states that currently cap legislators' tenures are developing practices to help make lawmakers more effective during their limited time in office, including: running extended training sessions for freshman, selecting chamber leaders up to a year before they assume their post and creating more independent oversight of the executive branch.
 
The most extensive multi-state study of term limits, based on three years of interviews, nationwide surveys and data analysis, comes in an election year when 268 legislators will be forced to retire from office, including more than 125 floor leaders and committee chairs. The year 2000 saw 380 state lawmakers get the boot because of term limits.

The study's results echo concerns since 1990, when voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma became the first of 21 states to limit state legislators' time in office — all but one by ballot initiative. In addition to the original three states, legislative term limits are now in effect in Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. Term limits take effect in Louisiana next year and in Nevada in 2010. State courts or legislators have rescinded term limits in Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. A November ballot initiative will give Oregon voters another chance to limit state lawmakers' tenure.

Despite the drawbacks of term limits, few states that have them are currently thinking of repealing them and Kurtz doesn't expect that to change. "The public doesn't have much of an appetite for repeal," he said. California, which limits House member terms to six years and Senate terms to eight, is currently considering extending, not repealing, its term limits for state lawmakers. Bruce E. Cain, director of the University of California's Washington Center who was involved with the study, told Stateline.org that he expects the California Legislature to kick the issue to a commission to decide.

While proponents promised that regular turnover in the statehouse ranks would create opportunities for minorities and women, the number of female legislators is declining in most term-limited legislatures, increasing only in California and South Dakota, according to the study.
 
The number of Hispanic legislators has increased somewhat in California, Florida and Arizona, and African-Americans make up a greater share of legislatures in Arkansas and Michigan, researchers found. In those cases, term limits only accelerated demographic changes that already were under way in the state and statehouse, the study's authors wrote.
 
Under term limits, less-experienced legislators cede more power and influence to the governor and lobbyists, according to the study. For instance, four in-depth case studies used for the report found that legislators made many fewer adjustments to governors' budgets after term limits took effect.

A 2002 survey of 3,500 legislators by the same coalition of groups came to a similar conclusion.
 
Because they do not have as much time to learn the nuances of policy or political maneuvering, term-limited legislators — and especially committee chairmen — have to rely on the policy expertise of lobbyists and the institutional knowledge of staff, according to the study.
 
"Lobbyists know that their interactions with a legislator will end at a particular point in time. In some cases this has led to unethical behavior by lobbyists who may not be as careful about guarding their credibility as in the past," the report stated.
 
Term limits also increase the partisanship of the lawmakers themselves because they have less time to accomplish their policy goals or build relationships with colleagues, the study said.
 
"Members are less collegial and less likely to bond with their peers, particularly those from across the aisle. The consequences of this are more than a simple change in the social climate — the decline in civility has reduced legislators' willingness and ability to compromise and engage in consensus-building," the report said.
 
To combat the chronic inexperience of legislators, statehouses under term limits are taking greater measures to train new lawmakers, NCSL's Jennifer Drage Bowser, the lead author of the report, said during the same press briefing. California has a comprehensive 10-day training session for new Assembly members and follow-up sessions to deal more specifically with the legislative process.
 
The Colorado General Assembly has a "buddy system" that pairs veteran legislative staff with a freshman legislator, and lawmakers also get a notebook explaining both formal rules and unwritten customs of the Statehouse. In Missouri, legislators get a recording of the rules to listen to on their travels from home to the Capitol in Jefferson City. Both Colorado and Missouri limit terms for state lawmakers to eight years.
 
Some statehouses also are creating a leadership ladder to ensure more consistent leadership from chamber officers and committee chairmen, who may assume their posts with little experience and little time left in their terms. The Arkansas and Florida lower houses both select their speakers a full year before they would assume their roles, giving them the opportunity to learn the process.

In the California Assembly since 2000, the new speaker has been seated in the spring of every election year — rather than post-election just before a new session. This gives the incoming speaker a chance to become familiar with the leader's duties while the former speaker is still around for advice and prevents having a "lame duck" speaker with no incentive to raise money and re-elect party colleagues in the fall.

Keeping a check on the executive branch is another challenge for term-limited legislatures. Two years after term limits were approved by Florida voters, the Legislature created its own policy analysis and accountability arm to review the performance of state agencies and programs. Based on Florida's actions, the Maine Legislature also created an independent auditing agency to monitor the effectiveness of state spending.

"Term limits have certainly weakened legislatures' power in relation to the executive, but it's also not the end of the world for legislatures. They still have substantial resources, both formal and informal power over legislation, budgets and appointments," Kurtz said.