States Brace for Huge Legislative Turnover

Term limits prevent Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley, center, from running again. (AP)

On August 12, Steve Tilley was speaker of the Missouri House and one of the most influential political figures in the state. On August 13, he left the legislature entirely, having resigned his seat with five months left in his term. Within weeks, Tilley, a Republican, had registered as a lobbyist.

In making this switch, Tilley had company. His Democrat counterpart, Minority Leader Mike Talboy, had made the transition from legislator to lobbyist in the spring.

The career path of Tilley and Talboy is unusual. Most Missouri legislators, of course, aren't suddenly becoming lobbyists. Most aren't leaving the legislature early. But, whether they want to or not, many are leaving for a number of reasons.

After the 2010 elections, about half the members of the Missouri House were freshmen. This year, even before the general election potentially knocks off more incumbents, a third of the legislature is guaranteed to be new. In this way, Missouri is one of the more extreme examples of what is about to happen in state capitals across the country.

This year's elections come after almost every state has redrawn its legislative districts in the once-a-decade process that follows each census. By scrambling the political maps, redistricting always results in an atypical amount of legislative turnover because many incumbents are forced to run in unfamiliar turf — or retire instead. Turnover in 2010 was unusually high, too, with fully 29 percent of legislators new, because the Republican landslide swept so many Democratic incumbents out of office (see chart).

When the two cycles are combined, the end result will be legislatures that are light on experience. Karl Kurtz of the National Conference of State Legislatures says that when the winners of next month's elections are sworn in, likely close to half of state legislators will have two years of tenure or less—the highest rate of turnover over two election cycles in 50 years.

Adding to the legislative churn in Missouri and other states are term limits. The exodus of lawmakers is largest in the 15 states that have these limits where every election cycle, a large proportion of the legislature is barred from running again. As a result, these states demonstrate best how experience—or the lack of it—changes the way a legislature operates.

Current and former legislators say that since term limits took effect in Missouri in 2002, legislators have less policy knowledge and less institutional knowledge. As a result, they argue, the legislature has lost influence.

On the other hand, the potential promise of high turnover—in states with term limits or without them—is that it provides an opportunity for a fresh start. After a period of difficult legislative conflicts, that's something that some Missouri lawmakers are looking forward to.

Experience diminished

The effect of term limits on legislative tenure in Missouri was dramatic and immediate. David Valentine of the Missouri Institute for Public Policy reports that in 2001, before term limits kicked in, senators averaged nine years of experience, while House members averaged more than five years. A decade later, the numbers were less than three years for senators and two for House members.

One person who's noticed the effects of that change is Franc Flotron. A lobbyist, Flotron says legislators actually have asked him to explain points of order and parliamentary procedure. As a former senator, he knew the rules of the legislature better than the legislators themselves.

Nor is it just the rules that the new lawmakers need help understanding, Flotron says. One of his clients is the Missouri Hospital Association. “We spend a whole lot of time just trying to explain some of the basics of financing,” he says. “I believe there are a not insubstantial number of members who aren't really clear on the differences between Medicare and Medicaid.”

State Representative Chris Kelly, who served a stint in the legislature both before and after term limits, describes the earlier period — with a heavy dose of sarcasm — as the “bad old days.”

“I think that people are every bit as smart and dedicated and hard working as they were in the bad old days,” Kelly says, “but they just don't know as much.”

The most common theory is that when legislators lose experience, they lose power and just about everyone else gains it, including legislative staff, the executive branch, the judiciary and lobbyists. But term-limit supporters are quick to point out that higher turnover disrupts cozy relationships between longtime legislators and lobbyists.

Still, many observers can point to examples that they see as evidence that the legislature is weaker. Flotron, for example, thinks the legislature ceded power too willingly to the courts in redistricting this cycle.

Kelly argues that some legislative debates have become less productive because new lawmakers think old ideas are new. “Every year, someone runs saying they are going to clean out the fraud and abuse,” Kelly says. “Understand that's one word: ‘fraud-and-abuse.'” They do that, he says, without knowing that dedicated lawmakers have worked on the topic for years, with only incremental success.

Experience retained

Whether this new round of high turnover will weaken legislatures in states without term limits isn't clear. A key difference is that in states without term limits, even when many members are new, most of the committee chairmen and caucus leaders tend to stay the same, sometimes for decades. The leaders in these states generally have lots of knowledge and expertise, even when the rank-and-file members don't.

In contrast, term-limit states provide opportunities for legislators to advance up the ranks early in their careers, only to cycle them out of office soon afterward. In Maine, for example, John Martin served as House speaker for 20 years through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. After the state's eight-year term limits came into effect in 1996, though, seven consecutive speakers served for only two years. (The current speaker, Robert Nutting, is eligible to serve another term, so he has a chance to break that streak.)

One of those House speakers was Hannah Pingree, whom Time Magazine named to its “40 under 40” list of political rising stars in 2010. Today, though, Pingree isn't overseeing the budget of the state's Medicaid program or managing the staff of the Department of Transportation. Instead, she oversees the budget and staff at Nebo Lodge, an inn owned by her mother (U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree) on an island in Penobscot Bay. Term limits forced her from office in 2010. For now, her political career is mostly on hold.

Pingree concedes that term limits weren't all bad for her. She likely wouldn't have had an opening to win a seat at age 25 if her predecessor hadn't been termed out. Leaving the legislature has given her chance to start a family, while she prepares for her next run for office. “I looked at it kind of as a good vacation from politics,” Pingree says. Still, she also adds the lack of experience comes with a cost. “A job like speaker,” she says, “is certainly a job where you get better as it goes along.”

Turnover among top legislators has become common in Missouri, too. In January, all four legislative leaders will be new. Tilley would have been termed out if he hadn't accepted the lobbying job first.

Tilley's story reflects another major difference in the way turnover plays out in states with term limits and without them. In term limits states, lawmakers know the date when they'll need a new job, whether it's an elected office or something else. “There is more attention paid by the legislators as far as what they're going to do next, which is natural,” says Michael Gibbons, a former president pro tempore of the Missouri Senate who's now a lobbyist. “There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does change the dynamic of things.”

Turnover valued

Given some of the gloom around term limits, it's easy to lose sight of why they were enacted in the first place—and why voters still broadly support them, even if many legislators do not. The idea was to keep politicians from sticking around too long, so that new people with fresh ideas could solve problems the old ones couldn't. In Missouri, there's at least some sentiment that turnover might not be such a bad thing right now.

Even though both the Missouri House and Senate are controlled by Republicans, the legislature was riven by divisions over the last two years. Last year, a special session on tax credits and economic development incentives collapsed amid disagreements between the House and Senate. A group of renegade Republicans in the Senate known as the “Gang of Nine” challenged their party's own leadership on the budget. Redistricting led to messy political combat.

Now, the party leaders and many of the key antagonists will be gone. “Many of those personalities will not be here next term,” Tim Jones, the likely speaker next year, told The Kansas City Star earlier this year. “The ones who will be here are the ones I have the best relationships with.”

What lawmakers make out of this opportunity to start over, both in states with term limits and without them, remains to be seen. “I think for the most part there's a sense of optimism,” Gibbons says. “The hard part is when you start having to deal with details and not everything works out how every member wants it to.”

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