Term Limits May Prompt More Stalemates at Montana Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A near record number of lawmakers are being ousted from office by term limits at the close of this session, just as many are pointing to the overall drain on experience as a source of partisanship and impasse.

“It has been an utter disaster,” said Eric Feaver, lobbyist for Montana’s MEA-MFT teacher’s union. “The inability of this Legislature to come to a legislative conclusion is one more piece of evidence that term limits have hurt Montana.”

All told, 15 senators and 15 representatives will be termed out, with Republicans taking the hardest hit in both chambers. That is more than in any session since the limits began to take effect in 2000, when 47 veteran legislators hit their service caps.

“This is just the second revolution of term limits having affect in the Senate,” said Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, who has reached his last days after 16 years as a legislator. “One third of the most experienced members will be gone in the Senate and next session has the potential to have a whole lot of people who are new to the process in it.”

Since 1992, Montana’s Constitution has prohibited any legislator from serving more than eight years in one chamber in any 16-year period. The limits have been a perennial target for legislation.

“They don’t want to go home because the problem you have up here is once people get elected they start to feel they are indispensable,” said Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, who spearheaded the push to establish term limits in Montana.

This session two bills failed that sought to soften the term limit system: one to repeal them altogether and another to shorten the amount of time before legislators can serve again.

In effect, Montana’s term limits actually go further than requiring an eight-year hiatus from office, according to a 1997 opinion by the state’s attorney general. That’s because lawmakers cannot put their name on a ballot until a full eight years has passed. So, as it plays out, a legislator ousted by term limits in 2010 would not be able to run for office in the same chamber again until 2020 or 2022, depending on whether they’re vying for a House or Senate seat.

Most lawmakers contend booting them out of office after eight years spurs partisan bickering, increasing the likelihood of deadlock over their one main task — appropriating a budget.

“I would argue that term limits are the biggest cause of the lack of working together,” said Rep. Dennis Himmelberger, R-Billings, who has served his eight years in the House but has no Senate plans. “It takes people a while in this institution to form relationships and really that’s what it’s about is working together to serve the people of Montana.”

Those opposing term limits also say they sap power from the Legislature, which they note is the people’s branch of the government.

“You empower the executive, you empower the lobbyists and that’s not good for the system because then we lose what the citizen Legislature brings,” said Rep. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, who has hit eight years in the House.

Cohenour sponsored a bill this session to abolish term limits for all state offices. But the measure failed in committee, amid questions about the wisdom of freeing statewide officeholders, such as the governor or secretary of state, from term limits.

Between 1990 and 2000, term limits were enacted in 21 states. But they have been removed in six of those states, by either court order or legislative action.

They have never, however, been removed by popular vote, which is what it would take in Montana where they are part of the Constitution.

“I think it takes a legislative insider to see the changes term limits bring,” said Jennie Bowser, senior elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislators. “The general public really only sees that the capitol hasn’t been burned to the ground and laws are still coming out.”

Fans of term limits argue the public is wise to stand firm on giving lawmakers an expiration date.

“When you bring fresh ideas and fresh people into the system it makes for much better legislation,” Butcher said. “You continually bring fresh input from the real world.”

And even many of those who oppose term limits grudgingly admit they value the contributions of young lawmakers who may not have won seats competing against the old guard.

But on the other side, even freshman lawmakers question whether Montana’s term limits may be too severe, leaving the Legislature without much of what many refer to as “institutional memory.”

“The learning curve is just too steep for a part-time citizen Legislature, said Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, a first-time legislator. The key is to balance the benefit of having experienced legislators, against the cost of not fostering enough turnover to create fresh perspectives and new ideas.”

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