Government & Politics

‘This is a craft. It’s an art’: Missouri lawmakers make case for easing term limits

Missouri law allows lobbyists to ply state lawmakers with a steady stream of free meals, free booze, free travel and free event tickets.
Missouri law allows lobbyists to ply state lawmakers with a steady stream of free meals, free booze, free travel and free event tickets. Bigstock

Saying they want to curb outside influence in state government, Missouri lawmakers are backing a bill that would allow them to serve longer terms in the state House or Senate.

Critics say term limits imposed on lawmakers give undue influence to "bureaucrats" and lobbyists who are more experienced than freshman legislators.

"What profession do we say we don't want someone with experience?" said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City. "This is a craft. It's an art; it's a science. It takes time to learn. You have to fail at it."

Missouri legislators are limited to eight years in the House and eight in the Senate, for a combined 16 years.

The bill, proposed by Holsman, would change the Missouri Constitution to allow members to serve all 16 years in one chamber or the other. To provide the same opportunity to past legislators and avoid a potential lawsuit, Holsman said, all current and past legislators' time served would reset. A senator who has already served 16 combined years in the House and Senate could serve for another 16 years.

Missouri voters would have to approve Holsman's proposal on the November ballot.

The bill also would impose an outright ban on lobbyists gifts.

Senators approved the bill 20-12 last month, and a House committee voted in favor of it last week. The House still has to pass it to put it in front of voters this fall.

Critics said term limits restrict legislators' ability to gain experience and institutional knowledge. By the time legislators develop procedural and strategic skills, they're forced out by term limits.

Holsman said term-limited House members often find themselves pitted against each other in a race for a Senate seat if they want to remain in Jefferson City. Only one of those people will be able to become a senator.

"I've talked to senators recently as this year who have told me that had they been able to stay in the House because they had gotten comfortable with their subject matters, they would have stayed in the House instead of coming to the Senate," Holsman said. "But because they were termed out of the House, they went ahead and made the move to the Senate."

Jay Dow, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, said most political scientists don't favor legislative term limits.

"If legislators are turning over quickly, they don’t have a lot of experience. That tends to increase the influence of special interests, and it tends to increase the influence of bureaucracy,” Dow said.

Term limits, he said, are easy to sell. They're "intuitively pleasing" and keep out "career politicians."

“There’s something to be said for gray hair," Dow said. "There’s something to be said for experience.”

Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, chair of the House Government Efficiency Committee, said he supported the bill because the General Assembly loses members with institutional knowledge to term limits. Johnson said although he is term-limited in the House, he doesn't plan to run for the Senate.

"It can take a year or two or three years to even kind of figure out how things move and how to do things here," Johnson said. "It's definitely a very large learning curve, and every couple of years, we're retraining every person that comes in the body."

The bill's ban on lobbyist gifts would include meals and events.

Banning lobbyist gifts has been a popular proposal in the House. A bill offered by Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, received overwhelming support in the House last year. It would have banned individual gifts but allowed lawmakers to partake in a dinner so long as all members of the General Assembly were invited with enough notice. Holsman's ban is the first to pass the Senate.

Gifts for General Assembly members have been on the decline in recent years, and several legislators, including Holsman and Johnson, have opted not to accept gifts.

"I received a plaque one time as an award and then it showed up as a $225 gift, so I had to track them down, and I had to pay them $225 out of my own money just to basically buy this award," Johnson said.

Johnson said he does that to make sure he has no lobbyist gifts on his record with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

"It's very difficult to track them and make sure that you're at zero, but I've always maintained a zero balance on lobbyist gifts," Johnson said.

Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said he supported the idea of banning lobbyists gifts, but he had questions about the implementation. If a lobbyist were to give him a hunting rifle or a suite at an event, he would understand that to be a gift.

"Do you consider a cup of coffee to be a gift?" Schatz said.

Holsman's ban would cover any food or beverage, gift, waived or modified fee, forgiven loan or transfer of "any item with a reasonably discernible cost."

"We get invited to chamber events, local corn growers, cattlemen, soybean associations," Schatz said. "You get invited to all these types of dinners. ... Those are reasonable things that people expect you to come at."

Those dinners likely cost $25 to $40 a plate, Schatz estimated. He said a cap around that level would be more reasonable.

Lobbyists have spent about $224 on Schatz this year and $200 on his staff members.