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Dealing With Term-Limited Legislators

States with term-limited legislators are seeking ways to counteract the drawbacks of high turnover. Here, former Michigan state Sen. Dennis Olshove points to a picture of state Senators circa 2004, now out of office.

David Kidd
There’s an expansive view from the 10th floor corner office of state Sen. Dennis Olshove. From his suite in Lansing, Mich., you can see the main entrance of the state’s Capitol, the impressive courtyard that leads up to it and the off-white Capitol dome that reaches into a canvas of clouds.

On a recent early winter afternoon, the view inside that corner office, however, is bleak: Boxes and folders clutter the floor. Files, mementos and thank-you letters litter a wooden desk. In the adjacent room, a paper shredder groans.

“Come back in three weeks,” Olshove says, “and this room will be completely empty. The walls will be painted, and the history will be gone.”

For the past eight years, Olshove walked from this legislative office building to the Capitol, where he pushed pieces of legislation on various matters like fire safety and renewable energy, medical issues and emergency unemployment benefits. Some bills passed, others never saw the light of day. But Olshove’s days in the Michigan Legislature now are finished forever.

It’s not by choice, however.

Olshove was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1991, took a break and then migrated to the Senate in 2002. Now he’s been kicked out due to the state’s term limits, which put a cap of three two-year terms for the state House and two four-year terms for the state Senate. Never again can Olshove run for the Legislature, and he and his fellow Michigan legislators aren’t the only ones prohibited from being state legislators again.

Across the country, term limits are throwing lawmakers out of office and forcing extreme makeovers in several state legislatures. In the United States, 378 legislators in 14 states were term-limited this past year, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the facelift in the Michigan Legislature has been the most extreme: Due to term limits, 29 of the 38 senators will be replaced along with 34 of 110 House members. In addition, the state will have a new governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

All of this is taking place at a difficult time in state governance: Financial turbulence clouds the future and raises questions about the need for experienced legislators -- ones who know the ins and outs of passing laws in a timely manner and finding solutions to problems through the legislative process. A steep learning curve may be a luxury in times such as these. That’s why, whatever state leaders believe about the merits of term limits, they are in agreement on one point: If term limits are in place, action should be taken to counteract the negative effects of high turnover and an inexperienced legislative body. That is, new legislators must be equipped quickly and effectively with the tools and tactics to handle the tasks they face. Nobody wins if lawmakers are forced to sit idly through their terms because they never learned the ropes.

The Origin of Term Limits

Formal limits for state officials date back to Colonial days, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that legislative term limits became a target of government reformers. Spurred by voter mandates, 15 states put legal restrictions on the number of terms a member may serve in a particular office. The underlying idea was that term limits could bring new faces to the legislature -- thus a constant flow of fresh ideas to state government. Moreover, term limits, its proponents suggested, would keep legislators from hogging valuable seats as “career politicians.”

When Michigan voters enacted term limits in 1992, it wasn’t just the fresh ideas and new faces that voters were concerned with. They hoped term restrictions would sever ties between legislators and lobbyists, and open the door to a new world of policymaking possibilities.

Some hopes have been realized. Term limits have reportedly pumped life into the Michigan Legislature by improving diversity and helping local residents connect to a government that has a more everyday-citizen look to it. “I hear stories of the old days and the legislators were treated literally like royalty,” says state Rep. Tom McMillin, a certified public accountant who just finished his first term. “Everybody bowed to these people. Term limits guarantee that we get away from the whole idea of kings and princes. We gain much more in having a citizen legislature.”

The legislative ticking clock, supporters say, also keeps the governing body from falling into a stale political routine, and it forces legislators to focus on the task at hand. There isn’t time for new legislators to buy into conventional wisdom and inside-the-box thinking, suggests Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Midland, Mich. “That’s a good thing,” he says. “If you don’t have term limits, you’re guaranteed to get a whole bunch of guys and gals whose thinking never veers outside the box, and they remain there for decades.”

But there has also been an outcry over the counterproductivity of term limits. Term-limit opponents say experience matters, and when veterans term out, rookie lawmakers lose the vets’ institutional knowledge. That, in turn, promotes short-term thinking. In rocky times, seasoned legislators may be best suited to pushing through the difficult solutions that lie ahead.

The Questionable Effectiveness of Term Limits

There are questions about how effective term limits have been in states that have a long track record with them. A 2004 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, for instance, found that instead of revolutionizing the state Legislature with innovation, new members often emulated their precursors, and the policymaking process suffered. “Legislative committees screen out fewer bills, the legislative process does not encourage fiscal discipline nor link requests to spending limits,” the report noted, “and committee membership and leadership continuity impacts experience and expertise crucial to effective policymaking.”

In Michigan, a 12-year study by Wayne State University found that term limits have dissolved important checks and balances, and increased lobbyists’ influence. Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, a political science professor at the university and the study’s lead author, says there is no question that the problem stems from the limited time new legislators have to understand their jobs and a lack of veteran leadership to guide them. “It’s very difficult to bring new legislators up to speed,” she says. “They’re just barely getting a grasp of what the job consists of when they’re on their way out the door.”

As disenchantment with term limits echoed through several state legislative chambers, some states decided to backtrack. In 2002, the Idaho Legislature became the first state to repeal its own term limits. Whereas many other efforts to repeal have fallen short at the polls, legislatures or the courts in five other states -- Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming -- followed in Idaho’s footsteps.

For states that are keeping term limits in place, the trend is toward working against the negative factors by providing new legislators with better support, communication and advanced planning. “The more time that the clerk and secretary can spend with incoming legislators,” says Craig Ruff, a senior policy fellow at Public

Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based policy research firm, “the faster and easier it will be for legislators to adapt to new roles.” Not surprisingly, that is why Olshove, whose seat was won by state Rep. Steve Bieda, met several times with his successor to tell him what to expect.

Transitioning In the New Lawmakers

Perhaps a perfect model of an effective orientation is the boot camp for new lawmakers based in Sacramento, Calif. For the past 12 years, the Robert M. Hertzberg Capitol Institute has provided training to new members and their employees on topics ranging from state ethics rules and computer systems to committees. Open year-round in a legislative office building, lawmakers go through an in-depth overview of processes, dissect statutes to digestible levels and receive large binders loaded with information and resources.

The program was initiated by Hertzberg, who as a freshman legislator went to a half-day of training that, he says, “didn’t teach me anything about becoming a legislator.” Years later, the former speaker of the Assembly decided to do something about it. He spent some time thinking about the issue and asking himself, “What do legislators need, and how do legislators learn?”

The comprehensive, intensive program that Hertzberg and former Republican Assembly Leader Bill Leonard designed helps new members understand the need-to-know details of the job. “At the superficial level, it’s about term limits, but it’s more about a cultural shift,” Hertzberg says. “All institutions have to modernize to deal with rapid change. We’re trying to create a long-term resource.”

This past November, Hertzberg headed up an initial tour for the newest class of legislators -- something he tries to do every year. He herded 25 of the 28 new members who showed up to the chamber floors, the travel office, the nurse’s office and other need-to-know spots. He talked about his days in state government and shared details of the Capitol’s past to impart history and context.

In other states, mentor programs match freshmen with senior members, and chamber seat assignments are arranged to prevent cliques. Some states even select key legislative leaders in advance so they’ll have a jump-start on critical issues. “A few states now choose the speaker designate a year ahead, and they’re brought in on the budget meetings,” says Thomas Little, director of curriculum development and research for the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. “They know they only have two years, so they can’t afford to spend the first year trying to find out what’s going on.”

With the timer running, veteran lawmakers might feel inclined to keep the governing group as small as possible to maximize efficiency. But legislators can learn faster through participation, says Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. New members, he suggests, should be identified and mentored more directly than in the pre-term limit days when they could observe from the sidelines. “The idea of a good-old boy group is harder to maintain in a time-shortened career,” Herzik says. “The way around it is to bring other members into the decision-making process earlier.”

There’s also a movement toward providing training throughout the term. Last year, for instance, Michigan’s McMillin took freshmen legislators to meet with the clerk to discuss amendments, strategies and parliamentary procedures, and he plans to hold ongoing orientations in the future. “A freshman coming in under our leadership will feel like they’re part of the process and won’t be overwhelmed,” he says. “I want to make sure they understand the nuances.”

Partisanship, Institutional Memory and Legislative Exchanges

There are other problems spawned by term limits. One is partisanship. Term-limited lawmakers have less interest in bridging the divide between parties than pushing a partisan agenda, which hampers political progress, says Sarbaugh-Thompson. “The friendships are missing,” she says. “People don’t know each other. The country at large has very little respect for political experience. I think they think of it as campaigning instead of governing.”

There are also issues revolving around a lack of institutional memory, which some say boosts power for lobbyists: Their knowledge on certain issues gives them leverage. But in many ways, term limits also force lobbyists to start from scratch and reintroduce themselves whenever a new member enters the political arena. In that sense, veteran staffers may have more of an inside track when it comes to legislative influence. But in the chamber, who lawmakers know matters as much as -- if not more than -- what lawmakers know. And many will admit that they have a hard time keeping track of who’s who.

“I was here before term limits, so I got to see the transition,” Olshove says. “Now if I’m in a room for any event, some people may be legislators, but I don’t know who they are.”

In the late 1990s, a group of Michigan lawmakers set out to forge relationships through field trips called “legislative exchanges.” On nonformal session days, they caravanned to various districts for excursions. Sometimes they stayed overnight in a hotel or motel, and they would meet for dinner.

“We went to each other’s districts to better understand the whole state so we could work together across the aisle,” says Sen. Patty Birkholz, who just termed out of the state Legislature. “When you’re traveling together, it helps force relationship-building.”

Since then, the legislative exchanges have been all but forgotten. In the past few years, hopes of making solid connections cracked under the weight of party pressure -- and the fact that legislators come and go in a flash.

Wrapping Up a Legislative Term

During one of his final days in the Legislature, Olshove looks at a picture in his office of Senate members circa 2004. “Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone,” he says, moving his finger from member to member in the picture. “This is ridiculous. All these folks are gone. That’s term limits for you.”

One of his staff members notifies him that a class is waiting for him in the Capitol. Students from Siersma Elementary School, located in his district, visit the Capitol every November as part of the curriculum. For the past five years, Olshove has volunteered to give a tour of the Senate Chamber to the kids, “his constituents,” he calls them.

Once in the building, Olshove leads a few dozen fifth-graders into the south wing of the second floor, his stomping grounds. There he breaks down the lawmaking process, using a pretend proposal: No school on Fridays. The kids cheer, and then groan when he admits that the governor probably wouldn’t sign off on that bill.

Then he opens the floor for questions. The students fire away with random questions about his favorite color (he doesn’t have one), what he does for fun (spends time with his children), and whether he’ll ever run for governor (no). Olshove then points to one student raising her hand in the middle of the crowd.

“Do you like your job?” she asks.

The kids haven’t learned about term limits in class. They have no idea that next November, a brand new senator will be here giving the tour of the Senate Chamber. But they wait with wide eyes to hear his answer.

“I do,” he says. “You get to meet all sorts of people every day, and you never know what to expect. And remember, any one of you can get elected one day.”

With that, the kids gather around him for a group picture. Olshove smiles for the camera and for the kids, his constituents for only a few more weeks.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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