The term-limit movement of the '90s stalls
At least 16 states consider ways to repeal the caps on lawmakers' tenures as states worry about experience gap.
Disenchanted voters embraced the idea as the perfect chain to yank entrenched politicians out of office but some academics worried it would throw experienced lawmakers out of government. Many analysts say, at the least, it has brought fresh thinking into statehouses.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Term limits - the great political revolt that rolled into California and spilled across 21 states since the early 1990s - has reached its high-tide mark and may be ebbing.
A lawsuit now pending in Wyoming could make that state the sixth to rescind term limits, behind Utah, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington. Nearly every other state using term limits has tried to eliminate or alter them.
"Term limits is a idea that is running out of both steam and room," says Patrick Basham, senior fellow at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. The remaining five states that have provisions that allow citizens to introduce them have rejected the idea and the rest - 24 other states - would require legislators taking the action themselves. "That would be like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving ... not likely," says Mr. Basham.
[Editor's note: Basham clarifies his views in a letter to the editor: http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0503/p08s01-cole.html (third from top).]
Instead, 16 states - Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and now Wyoming - are looking for ways to repeal or loosen them.
Nationwide polls show voter disdain for their state legislators at record highs, but states are struggling to assess whether term limits are the answer.
In Michigan last year, 71 percent of its legislators were forced out. The leadership vacuum has prompted the state to ask voters to extend their term limits from eight to 14 years. Activists in Oklahoma are trying to point out why this November's election - with 42 open seats - could bring in so many new faces that the state business may suffer. Arkansas and Montana are proposing amendments to extend their term limits.
In California, after a recall election in which state legislators received even lower approval ratings than ousted Governor Gray Davis, ideas continue to percolate on ways to extend terms (now at six years for assembly members, eight for senators) or allow elected officials to get around them.
A similar ballot initiative appeared last year in the guise of a measure intending to uphold term limits. But it failed when opponents made clear it allowed lawmakers to gather enough signatures to actually extend their possibilities for office.
"Whenever people are discussing the dysfunction of California government and how the state is no longer what it once was, the issue of term limits is high on the list," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
With this as backdrop, a national conference this week in Akron, Ohio will bring together researchers, officials, and legislators to assess the pros and cons in case studies on their own legislators. The conference will also assess fresh findings from two collaborative surveys.