Term limits in state legislatures have not accomplished many of the changes proponents promised—greater social, gender and racial diversity in legislatures and a decrease in political careerism. Instead they have given rise to inexperienced lawmakers and polarized legislatures. And they have tipped the balance of power away from legislatures and toward governors' offices and the executive branch. These are among the findings of Coping with Term Limits, A Practical Guide, the first comprehensive, multi-state study of the effects of term limits, conducted by the Joint Project on Term Limits (JPTL). JPTL is a cooperative effort among the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council on State Governments, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and a group of political scientists.
Policy analysts and legislative scholars conducted hundreds of interviews and prepared case studies in six states with term limits and three states without them. The case study states with term limits are Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine and Ohio. The control states without term limits are Illinois, Indiana and Kansas. The researchers also surveyed all of the nation's state legislators and compared responses of those from term-limited states with those from non-term-limited states.
"Term limits in states have done more to limit rather than enhance the effectiveness of the legislative branch," said Karl Kurtz, director of state services at NCSL and a lead researcher in the study. “By inhibiting the experience levels of members, their leaders and committee chairs, term-limited legislatures have lost a key element of organizational capacity. Instead of leveling the playing field between the legislative and executive branches, term limits have weakened the legislative branch in relation to executive power."
This fluctuating power has become most apparent in the budget-making process. In all but one of the term-limited states studied, influence over broad and minute state spending decisions shifted to the executive branch. In the control states, the balance of power did not change. Legislators that lack veteran leadership may hesitate to challenge the governor's budget, the report says.
Leaders and committee chairs in term-limited states have much less experience when they assume their leadership posts than their counterparts in other states, the study found. And in term-limited states, leaders serve for shorter periods of time. Before term limits, it was common in many states for legislators to serve a decade or more before ascending to the upper level of leadership. In term limited states today, however, many members start campaigning for leadership posts in their freshman year. No legislative leader in a term-limited state has served more than four years in a leadership post and a majority have been limited to two years.
"Many leaders in term-limited states are lame ducks from the moment they take office," says Thomas Little, director of curriculum development and research at the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. "They have less influence compared with their predecessors before term limits or their colleagues in non-term-limited states."
The JPTL study also found that legislatures in term-limited states suffered a decline in civility and an increase in conflict. Lawmakers in these states are less able to compromise or build consensus. The revolving door means fewer meaningful relationships form across the aisle. And new legislators who aren't intimately familiar with the substance of bills are more likely to choose politics over policy debates, the study found.
Term limits came into fashion in the 1990s. During that decade, 21 states enacted them. In several states the limits have been repealed or declared unconstitutional. Today, they are in force in 15 states. A proposal that would make Oregon the 16th state with term limits for legislators will be on the ballot in November.
Proponents claimed term limits would lead to a new breed of diverse citizen legislators, but the study found that did not occur.
"Term limits have not significantly changed the makeup of state legislatures," says University of California Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain, who was involved in the study. "We didn't see an increase in women legislators in the term-limited states, nor did we see a substantial difference in legislators' age or occupational backgrounds after term limits. In a few states that experienced a rapid rise in their Latino population, there was an increase in Latino legislators in part due to term limits, but in most other states there was little impact on minority representation.”
Legislatures have confronted the challenges that term limits present, the study found. Term-limited statehouses have increased training and professional development for legislators. They have instituted apprenticeship or mentoring programs for new legislators. And they have given greater attention to staff services, among other adjustments.
"Despite the negative effects of term limits, legislatures remain strong and enduring institutions of American democracy,” says Jennie Drage Bowser of NCSL, lead report author.
State-specific case study reports are online.
Coping with Term Limits is a summary report of the forthcoming book Institutional Change in American Politics: The Case of Term Limits. This book, edited by Karl T. Kurtz, Bruce Cain and Richard G. Niemi, includes JPTL results in greater detail. It is being published by University of Michigan press and is expected to be available in 2007.
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures news release
Posted: Wednesday, August 16, 2006 12:00:00 AM. Modified: Wednesday, August 16, 2006 9:12:23 AM.
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