HELENA – State Rep. Penny Morgan says the trouble began when she saw all the new faces in her appropriations subcommittee.
“I’m the only one on the Health and Human Services Subcommittee who came back from two sessions ago,” Morgan said.
The four-term Republican from Billings said she was frustrated by the pace of the subcommittee during budgeting sessions.
“The new people don’t know enough procedurally to make movement at all,” Morgan said. “They’re afraid to buck the system. The lobbyists totally hound these people.”
Morgan attributes the influx of “rookies” on her subcommittee to Montana’s strict term limits.
Term limits are constitutional caps on the length of time elected officials can stay in office. State representatives are elected every two years and cannot serve more than eight years in a 16 year period. Senators have the same term limits but are elected every four years.
In 1992, Montanans voted overwhelmingly for term limits on all elected officials. Three years later, the Supreme Court said a state could limit state officials but not federal ones.
Supporters say the rules keep career politicians out of the Legislature and allow everyday Montanans to keep their politics fresh. Opponents, however, say term limits inhibit true democracy and weaken the legislative branch. Several legislators have tried to loosen the limits this session, but nearly all have failed.
Bill Biernat, a term-limit supporter from Lewistown, points to Congress and the current economy as examples of why Montana needs term limits. Congress doesn’t have term limits, and some members, including U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, have been there over 30 years.
“They are evidence of why those seats should have been turned over years ago,” Biernat said. “We don’t want political hacks locking up the seats. This is supposed to be a citizen’s Legislature.”
Jim Lopach, chair of the University of Montana Political Science Department, said term limits reflect Montanans’ historic distrust of government. That distrust, he contends, could hurt the state in the long run.
“The Legislature is already weak in Montana,” Lopach said, adding that term limits make it even weaker.
“A huge problem in past sessions has been the lack of institutional memory, the lack of knowledge of legislative procedure, and the lack of good civic skills or attitudes for respect for the other side,” Lopach said.
He said institutional memory is especially important for lawmakers because it helps them understand why today’s laws were created and how those laws affect the bills this session.
Over 30 freshman legislators came to Helena this session, and Lopach said there is not enough legislative staff to bring them quickly up to speed. He said they often turn to lobbyists for information.
“(Lobbyists) are essential, but we don’t want over-reliance,” Lopach said.
But Biernat said this argument doesn’t hold water. He said it comes from lawmakers trying to hold on to their seats and abuse incumbency. Such legislators eventually fall out of touch with Montanans, he said, again using Congress as an example.
“The longer they stay, things don’t get better,” Biernat said. “The worse they get.”
Biernat and several other individuals opposed this session’s bills dealing with term limits. Most of the bills died before the session’s halfway point.
Rep. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, sponsored House Bill 458, which would have repealed all term limits placed on elected officials, from legislators to the governor. It was tabled in committee.
“The behavior of the Legislature in the past few sessions has not been up to par,” Cohenour said during the bill’s hearing. “I think the people are starting to notice that was a term-limits issue.”
House Bill 174 also died early this session. Sponsored by Rep. Ray Hawk, R-Florence, the measure would allow lawmakers to spend 16 years in the same house, instead of spending eight in one, eight in another. This bill was tabled in committee.
The only term-limit bill remaining is Senate Bill 495, sponsored by Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City. The bill would amend the constitution to clarify the length of time lawmakers must stay out of the Legislature before they can run again.
Story said different districts have different rules, as do the House and the Senate. A lawmaker who hasn’t served in eight years might try to run again but can get stymied if the attorney general reads the rules differently.
“Depending on where you live, it doesn’t treat you equally,” Story said.
SB 495 made it out of committee with a unanimous vote, and Story thinks it could eventually make the ballot.
Lopach said clarifying the rules is a step in the right direction, but the ultimate solution would be to eliminate term limits all together. Doing so would encourage more hotly contested races for elected seats because incumbents would have to live up to their promises to keep their seats.
“I think if people screw up, they’re not doing their job,” Lopach said. “Democracy means meaningful choices, and sometimes term limits stand in the way.”
People should have the right to vote out those lawmakers who perform poorly term after term instead of just waiting until they legally can’t run again, Lopach said.
“We’ve always had term limits,” he said. “They’re called elections.”
But Biernat said he is wary of relying on voters. He said the same people would keep heading back to Helena because they have the advantage of incumbency.
Rep. Morgan buys that argument to a degree. She supports term limits but wants them lengthened so legislators have time to gain expertise and educate new lawmakers so they don’t have to rely on lobbyists or state administrators.
“It’s really important when you’re talking about legislation to know what happened in past sessions,” Morgan said.
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