Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wilson: Term limits could have unintended consequences for Mississippi Legislature

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Mississippi legislators and other officer holders could be limited to two consecutive four-year terms, like the governor and lieutenant governor.

Problem is, good legislators — as well as the bad — would be cast out by the ballot initiative, filed with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office by Keith Plunkett, the policy and communications director for state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s United Conservatives Fund.

The initiative is proposed to stem the power of incumbency and end the corruption instituted by career politicians. To summarize — throw the bums out and their waste, fraud and abuse with it.
Plunkett told Mississippi Watchdog the biggest reason for filing for a ballot initiative was to get the public more involved in the political process. Incumbents are able to raise huge war chests with ease, and it often has a chilling effect on potential challengers by ending the battle before it begins.

“It’s about getting the public to re-engage and actually have access to the machine of government as it functions in the Legislature,” Plunkett said. “Elections will become more about policy rather than personality or the guy with the coolest logo. It becomes much, much more about policy.”

Nathan Shrader is an assistant professor of political science at Millsaps College who served as a legislative aide in both the Pennsylvania Senate and the Virginia General Assembly.
Term limits can have serious, unintended consequences, he says.
“I don’t think this is the panacea that a lot of reformers think that it would be,” Shrader said. He cited the book “Term Limits and The Dismantling of State Legislature Professionalism,” from 2005 by Thad Kousser.

Shrader said some of those consequences in three states — California, Colorado and Maine — studied by Kousser included a power shift to the executive branch, a big gain of strength of party leadership in the legislatures over their caucuses and the need for legislatures to hire more staff to deal with inexperienced lawmakers.

“In California, when the Legislature lost some of the institutional memory of the members who’d been there a long time, they also lost some of the legislators who were the most knowledgeable about how to position yourself as the legislative branch against the governor,” Shrader said. “In Colorado, Kousser found that the leadership of both parties got stronger because members had less experience and less knowledge of the functions of the legislative branch. They were leaning on and taking orders from the party leaders more than they used to.”

History isn’t kind in its judgment of term limits as a means of reform.
Term limits were one of the more popular reforms back in the early 1990s, a wave that began when voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma approved ballot initiatives. Mississippi tried to jump into the fray with two ballot initiatives in 1995 and 1999. Both went over like a glam metal album in the grunge era. Plunkett said the landscape has changed.

“Sixteen years is a long time, and in politics we talk about a few months as being a lifetime,” Plunkett said. “It was a totally different political atmosphere back then. I think people are ready for this now.”
The wave of term limits eventually crested, and only 15 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, have term limits for state legislators. Four states, either by court action or by legislative action, scrapped their term limits.

Shrader said that in a state such as Mississippi, where state legislators only make $10,000 per session and $123 per diem per day, the prevention of career politicians doesn’t figure into the case for term limits as in states where the Legislature meets year-round and it’s a full-time job.

California was a trailblazer for term limits and is one of several states with the harshest laws on the books. Mississippi’s proposal would limit lawmakers to two consecutive terms then allow them to do something else for a few years before restarting the limit clock with another election.

California, however, has a lifetime ban on those who serve three consecutive terms. It has spent billions on high-speed rail, presided over a pension system that is reaching its breaking point and have passed crippling tax increases. It also, for example, had time to pass a law regulating the appearance of toy guns and another requiring smart phones to have a “kill switch.”