Term limits for state legislators were overwhelmingly approved by Missouri voters in 1992 based on a simple premise: Periodic refreshing of the General Assembly’s ranks would make it more responsive to the people and less prone to corruption.
Twenty-six years later, did it work?
That’s the question The Star’s readers wanted to ask our panel of business leaders, policymakers and community catalysts participating in “The Missouri Influencers” series. From now until Election Day in November, The Star will be taking questions from readers through the Your Voice tool on an array of policy issues facing our state and posing those questions to our panel of 51 influential Missourians.
On the question of whether term limits have been a success in Missouri, the vast majority responded with a resounding “no.”
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Instead, most say term limits contribute to political gridlock; increase the influence of lobbyists, political consultants and bureaucrats; and create greater incentive for lawmakers to seek out lobbying jobs as they approach the end of their time in office.
“Term limits have been a disaster in Missouri,” said Richard Martin, the director of government affairs for JE Dunn Construction and a former Democratic political consultant. “It has transferred the power from the elected officials to the lobbyists and the consultants who get them elected.”
Mike Talboy, a former Democratic lawmaker from Kansas City who now serves as director of government affairs for Burns & McDonnell, said term limits “are terrible and have produced virtually nothing beneficial to policy and governing since being enacted.”
Gregg Keller, a veteran Republican political consultant and principal of Atlas Strategy Group, said Missourians’ desire back in 1992 to “get rid of the professional political class through term limits was understandable.”
But he said it has had the opposite effect in practice.
“It’s ensured that the people in the Capitol who know the most about legislation and the legislative process are the lobbyists who have been there longer than the term-limited representatives of the people,” Keller said.
Jane Dueker, a lawyer, radio host and longtime Democratic political strategist, said term limits also mean lawmakers “don’t have to live with the consequences of their actions.”
“People ascend to leadership before they are ready,” she said. “There is a lack of proper mentoring from long-time legislators. The decorum of the (legislative) bodies has suffered because legislators do not have to deal with their fellow lawmakers for the long term.”
Jean Paul Bradshaw, a lawyer and former U.S. attorney, said term limits make it harder to pass more complicated or controversial legislation that would typically take multiple legislative sessions.
“By the time a legislator gets up to speed on such an issue,” Bradshaw said, “they may be term-limited out and the process has to start all over again.”
‘New blood, new ideas’
Legislators are capped at eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate. To proponents, the arrangement ensures fresh voices get a seat at the table.
“Term limits have allowed more citizens to enter the legislature, and to do so on a regular basis, resulting in a more responsive legislature,” said James Harris, a Republican political strategist. “Without entrenched incumbents, lawmakers are encouraged to keep in touch with the citizens they represent.”
Jennifer Lowry, chief toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said term limits have ensured the legislature evolves with the people it is supposed to serve.
“In the past, little turnover meant few chances that forward thinkers could make change in how the government perceived issues and the impacts on the people of Missouri,” Lowry said. “Term limits allow changes to occur that mirrors the population.”
Term limits can result in “new blood, new ideas and greater independence from longstanding ideas and relationships,” said Maurice Watson, a partner with Husch Blackwell law firm.
But Watson says it also means fewer longstanding relationships among legislators, which leads to “less inclination to work together across party lines to get things done for the benefit of all citizens in the state.”
When politicians turn lobbyists
Term limits may ensure no one can make the legislature their career. But Mark Bryant, a lawyer and former Kansas City Council member, said elected officials end up spending “the last two years of their term positioning for another elected office.”
Those who aren’t seeking another elected office often return to the Capitol as a lobbyist, where they will work to influence their wet-behind-the-ears former colleagues. That can fuel a public perception that lawmakers nearing the end of their time in office could be casting votes to curry favor with potential future employers.
Two years ago, the legislature approved a law that requires legislators wait six months after the end of their term before they can return to the Capitol to as a lobbyist. But in some cases, lawmakers have chosen to resign their seat early, before their term officially expires, so that they can fulfill the six-month waiting period and still register as a lobbyist before the next legislative session begins.
John Fierro, Kansas City Public Schools board member, said six months is not long enough.
“Self-interest plays a big part in politics,” he said. “I would recommend advocating for former legislators to wait a full term, of two years, to lobby the House and a full term, of four years, to lobby the Senate.”
Among the many problems with term limits are that legislators are “often looking toward their next office or job opportunity, rather than focusing on their current job and current constituents,” said Jolie Justus, a former Democratic state senator who now serves on the Kansas City council.
Lawmakers have never undertaken a serious effort to undo the voter-imposed term limits. But periodically they’ve sought to alter them.
Earlier this year, the Missouri Senate approved legislation that would have asked voters to amend the Missouri Constitution to allow lawmakers to serve all 16 years in one legislative chamber or the other, instead of eight years in each.
The bill was brought up for debate in the House on the final day of the 2018 legislative session and seemed destined for the November ballot. But it never came up for a vote before the General Assembly adjourned for the year.
“I often told constituents, ‘Term limits mean always being governed by people who almost know what they’re doing,’” said Ryan Silvey, a former Republican state senator who now serves as chairman of the state’s Public Service Commission.
If a legislator can’t develop a working relationship with their colleagues in eight years, “you’re probably in the wrong business,” said Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College.
“It’s no surprise that many politicians support term limits,” she said, “until they are elected.”
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