Analysis: Study finds fault with Missouri term limits

Monday, December 19, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- 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 a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia 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, concludes David Valentine, associate director of public service at the university's Truman School of Public Affairs.

Valentine equates 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 Twenties.

He concludes 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 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 notes that some lawmakers felt uncomfortable trying to sift through the complex details of the proposal in a compressed time span. He says 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 Valentines notes, 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 acknowledges there is a learning curve to the Legislature. But he believes 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 says 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.

EDITOR'S NOTE: David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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