The Missouri Influencer Series

Have term limits in Missouri been a boon for good government — or a boondoggle?

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Missouri Influencer Series

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The Influencers’ verdict was bipartisan and close to unanimous. Term limits — restricting Missouri’s officeholders to a certain amount of time in office — are a bad idea, members of The Star’s Influencers panel said.

“They have backfired,” said former U.S. Sen. John Danforth. “Horrible impact,” said former Gov. Bob Holden. “A disaster,” argued one-time political consultant Richard Martin.

We think those views overstate the case.

Term limits don’t fix every problem in government. They can erode long-established relationships and compel lawmakers to focus on short-term results more than they should. They can make compromise more difficult.

But term limits — lawmakers are limited to eight years in the Missouri House, plus eight more in the state Senate — have not been a disaster. Instead, they can be an effective tool in removing and replacing entrenched power that often sees its own survival as more important than the will of the people.

Our Influencers see it differently. Many think limiting politicians’ time in office deprives Missourians of important experience in the legislature.

“We have lost a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge while empowering unelected lobbyists and bureaucrats,” said Influencer Ryan Silvey, a former lawmaker.

It’s true that knowledge is lost when a term-limited lawmaker is forced from office. Sometimes, though, institutional knowledge is overrated. It turns into a stubborn resistance to change.

Newly-elected representatives, on the other hand, can bring fresh ideas and approaches to old problems. “It brings new blood (and) new ideas” said Influencer Maurice Watson, who added that term limits “have had good and bad outcomes.”

The claim that term limits empower lobbyists and bureaucrats is also dubious. No one is forced to listen to a lobbyist or government official. Lobbyists and bureaucrats are influential only to the extent that any lawmaker, old or new, allows them to be.

Term limits do require lobbyists to make arguments based on merits, not on cozy relationships built over many late-night dinners and trips to the lake. That’s good for government.

Experience is a helpful guide. Missouri’s voters approved term limits in 1992, although they did not force anyone from office until 2002. Kansas lawmakers face no such limits.

Are the decisions in Topeka necessarily wiser than those in Jefferson City? No.

In 2002, Harry Wiggins left the Missouri Senate because of term limits, after 28 years of service. His friends lamented the departure, yet it cleared the way for the election of former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler — who then gave way to Jolie Justus. Kansas City’s representation in Jefferson City did not suffer in the transition.

Mayor Sly James faced only token opposition when he ran for re-election in 2015. Now, he must leave office, and an impressive field of candidates has emerged to replace him. Kansas City is better for it.

In November, voters will have the opportunity to impose term limits on Jackson County officials.

Voter-imposed term limits aren’t the answer to every problem, or a panacea for poor governance and a lack of transparency. Term limits often make officeholders less willing to compromise, as several Influencers pointed out. That’s a concern.

But Missourians rightly want the best quality government they can get. They think term limits are part of the answer, and they were right to make that choice.