MU study finds term limits bad for government effectiveness
By Tim Sampson
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Voted into law nearly two decades ago and taking effect 10 years ago, legislative term limits are a now a fact of life in the Missouri capitol. But a new study from the University of Missouri argues they may not be the best policy for state government.
A new report from the university’s Truman School of Public Affairs argues that the shortening of lawmakers’ careers has contributed to a lack of political expertise in the general assembly – resulting in a less effective government.
“We’re at a time and place where voter’s need to ask what do we want our elected representatives to do for us,” said David Valentine, a research associate professor at the university and the author of the report.
Although eight-year term limits for state representatives and senators was approved overwhelmingly by Missouri voters in 1992 in part because of the promise that it would help minimize the influence of lobbyist, Valentine argues that the opposite is true.
His report says that lawmakers – who can at most spend a total of 16 years in either legislative chamber – don’t have enough time to become policy experts. The average number of years lawmakers spends in office in Missouri is less than four years, down sharply from several years ago. In the House, representatives served and average of nine years a decade ago, and senators served an average of nearly seven years at their peak.
At these rates, the average current tenure of Missouri lawmakers is historically on par with where it was in the 1920s, and Valentine argues that isn’t a good thing.
“Is the world more complex than it was in the 1920s? IS the government bigger than it was in the 1920s? Are the problems that we have to deal with more difficult than they were in the 1920s?” he asks. “The answerer to all of these questions is yes.”
In the functioning of day-to-day government, Valentine argues that the disappearance of long-term or career politicians in the general assembly has led to a deficit of policy experts. A former state senate staffer, Valentine said that the traditional route for lawmakers to distinguish themselves was to become a respected expert on a certain policy area and then become a resource for other lawmakers.
Without this practice, Valentine said term limits have given more power to lobbyists who – as non-government employees – can remain in the halls of the capitol longer than any elected official in Jefferson City ever could. But at the same time, these lobbyists are not held accountable to constituents.
Valentine’s findings do have their supporters within the current general assembly. Earlier this year, state Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, introduced a bill that would have extended legislative term limits. Although Green has logged more than two decades in the state legislature and is being forced out by term limits next year, he said his bill was not in the interest of self-preservation. Rather, he argued similarly to Valentine that term limits kept lawmakers from developing the expertise necessary to make effective policy.
“Eight years is just too short a time period for people who are getting accustomed to the process up here,” Green said from the floor of the senate in February.
His bill ultimately failed to gain traction in the legislature.
But term limits still have their supporters in the state legislature. Earlier this month, Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, pre-filed a piece of legislation that would have expanded term limits to apply to all statewide elected officials. Under current law, term limits only apply to legislators, the governor and state treasurer, but Lager would like to see them applied to the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor as well.
Like many term-limit advocates, Lager argues they pave the way for average citizens to take part in government.
“Our founders envisioned a government that was run by citizen volunteers, not professional politicians,” he said earlier this month. “These limits ensure that Missouri remains a state run by fresh volunteers to public service, not entitled career politicians.”