Term Limits Put Twist on Legislative Elections

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With November's general elections less than a month away, time is running out for more than 200 state lawmakers in seven states where term limits bar them from running for re-election this fall.

Legislative experts are divided over the impact that the turnover--the biggest since California, Colorado, and Oklahoma voters passed the first state term-limit initiatives in 1990--will have on school policy.

But in Arkansas and Michigan, the implications are clearer. At least half the members of both states' lower legislative chambers, including the chairmen of the education panels, must say goodbye this year.

"My personal opinion is that it will be unhealthy for education," said Arkansas state Rep. David Choate, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee. He is leaving this fall because of term limits. "Education is a slow-moving issue, and things can take years to reach fruition," he argued. "You need the institutional memory that will be lost."

But Cleta Mitchell, the general counsel for the Term Limits Legal Institute in Washington, which defends legal challenges to term limits, disagreed.

"The truth of the matter is that people say institutional memory is memory in doing things the wrong way. They want to change this," she maintained.

The soon-to-be vacated seats add an extra element of uncertainty to the roughly 6,000 legislative races being decided Nov. 3. Democrats now control 49 state chambers and Republicans 48, and the dominant parties hold majorities by five or fewer seats in 37 chambers. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.)

"One anomaly this year is the number of untested candidates likely to be in the election," said Nancy Rhyme, a program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

The NCSL says 206 lawmakers this year will be forced out of 10 legislative chambers in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, and Oregon. The laws limit House and Senate members to anywhere from six to 12 years in office.

Observers are only now beginning to chart the implications of term limits. While 18 states restrict the time that state legislators can hold office, only 52 legislators from California and Maine have been forced out of office by such laws, according to a recent report by the Council of State Governments, a policy-research group in Lexington, Ky.

But a quick look at Maine shows the dramatic changes that can occur. After term limits went into effect there in 1996, Maine lost the presiding officers in both chambers and the heads of 12 committees, including the House education panel.

"I anticipate that will be the case in the future," said Steven E. Rouse, the government-relations director for the Maine Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. "It means that leadership has less power, less control, and it makes for an undisciplined caucus. I'm not sure that's beneficial in the long run."

But the 1996 transition also brought the state its first female House speaker, Democratic Rep. Elizabeth H. Mitchell, a former teacher and a champion of increased spending for education.

Mr. Rouse, however, is worried about future leaders, who are likely to turn over much more frequently under term limits.

Challenges Ahead

For starters, Keon S. Chi, the director of state trends and innovation for the Council of State Governments, predicted that next year "there will be a lot more freshman members, so legislative staff and lobbyists will be busier educating them."

Mr. Chi, a co-author of the council's term-limit report, said some legislatures are holding orientations for junior members who will assume leadership posts next year. They are also planning stepped-up orientations for new members.

According to the council's analysis of California and Maine, the states facing term-limit-related turnover can expect, among other things, that new members will be less likely to compromise and that staff members and lobbyists will have more influence over new, inexperienced lawmakers.

On the other hand, the report concluded that, since term limits, races in the two states have become more competitive and drawn more candidates. The report also found lawmakers willing to try new ideas and seek quick resolutions to legislative issues.

Michigan Rep. Sharon L. Gire, the Democratic chairwoman of the House education committee, said she is not optimistic about the changes in store for her state. Ms. Gire, who was first elected in 1986, is being forced out by the six-year limit on House membership that Michigan passed in 1992. She said the forced turnover of 67 of 110 House members will "really be harmful for good policy."

"That leaves a lot to be absorbed by a lot of people," added Ms. Gire, who is one of four candidates vying for two state school board positions. She offered incoming lawmakers this advice: "Pick areas where you have knowledge and expertise already. You can't learn everything in six years."

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 17, 20

Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as Term Limits Put Twist on Legislative Elections
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