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.
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.
The surveys found that executive branches have become relatively more powerful than legislative houses in states with legislative term limits. This is a result of diminished power by party leaders from legislative speakers to committee chairs, making it more difficult to oppose governor agendas or override vetoes.
"We have weakened the most representative bodies of state government," says Gary Moncrief, a professor of political science at Boise State University in Idaho. "Legislators are the most important component in the democratic system."
The surveys also found little impact on who was elected to office, despite predictions from the beginning that term limits would significantly diversify legislatures by creating more opportunities for women and minorities.
Term limits have shaken up the legislative processes, however, bringing more turnover, new faces - and disorganization.
"The greased wheel of state governments is relationships between people, and term limits dramatically sever relationships," says University of Akron professor Rick Farmer, host of this week's conference. "It doesn't mean that state government under term limits doesn't work, but it has meant that there is a lot more chaos."
Contrary to predictions, term limits have not given more power to legislative staffs and lobbyists. Instead, lobbyists find they are constantly reeducating lawmakers on the complexities of their issues, says Cristina Rose, a 32-year lobbyist in Sacramento, Calif..
But the movement has also brought a dramatic rise in the ability, through necessity, of legislatures to train themselves and streamline operations.
"States with term limits have found better and far more creative ways to give orientation to freshman, training for staff," says Linda Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Mr. Farmer and others say there is a disconnect between those who work in or with legislatures and ordinary voters.
"Those [academics] who study seriously what term limits are doing to legislatures in terms of erasing institutional memory are virtually unanimous in declaring them a disaster," says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Legislators themselves resist term limits for the obvious reason that they constrict the possibilities for office.
Because of these attitudes, ousted legislators with the backing of university researchers often start term-limit reform movements but they quickly run into entrenched opposition. Despite polls that say an organized opposition to term limits might produce results, the movement to roll back term limits has yet to coalesce.
"Lobbyists, legislators, and all those who work in government are working in several states to get movements going to overthrow term limits," says Farmer. "But they keep running into the voters, who are still convinced they are a good thing."