Term Limit Promises Not Kept

Term limits haven’t lived up to the promises of proponents, but rather corrode the power of legislatures, concludes a book released by the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL) this week-and Colorado is a case in point.

Colorado was one of six states with term limits studied, along with Arkansas, Arizona, California, Maine, and Ohio. Three states without term limits were used for comparison: Illinois, Indiana, and Kansas.Since the introduction of term limits in Colorado in 1990, there has not been increased competitiveness in campaigns. Women are not being elected in greater numbers, and neither are ethnic minorities. Legislators forced out of office still remain politial careerists, often running for other offices.

The legislature is less experienced. Leadership positions are often in two-year rotations, rather than being held by legislators with many years of experience. This lack of experience has concrete effects. For example, lack of experience with complicated technical issues such as the budget gives the full legislature less power to override the decisions of the powerful Joint Budget Committee.

Although the Colorado case study was completed in 2004, author John Straayer, political science professor at Colorado State University, says that the conclusions still ring true. “We’ve pretty much scraped the institutional memory, the policy, out of the legislature,” he says. “We don’t have the cadre of vets who passed on the norms.”

The book is the joint project of NCSL, the Council on State Governments, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and a group of political scientists, under the umbrella of the Joint Project on Term Limits. The experience of other states with term limits in most ways mirror Colorado’s.

Over all the book finds that legislatures in term-limited states suffer from a decline in civility, that lawmakers are less able to compromise. Because there is a revolving door out of office, fewer relationships develop across party lines. And legislators who lack experience are more likely to focus on politics over policy.

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About the Author

Nancy Watzman

is a Denver-based writer.

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