Panelists discuss how term limits reduce accountability in governance

By Chris Casey | University Communications

DENVER – Although popular with voters, legislative and local district term limits have resulted in eroded accountability of government leaders to the electorate, according to a panel that spoke at this morning’s Buechner Breakfast.

About 80 people attended the breakfast, held monthly by the Buechner Institute for Governance in the CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs.

The panel consisted of Karl Kurtz, of the National Conference of State Legislators; Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards; Doug Brown, former director of the Colorado Office of Legislative Legal Services; and moderator Kathleen Beatty, a faculty member and former dean of the School of Public Affairs.

Term limits became a trend in the early 1990s with three states – Colorado, Oklahoma and California – enacting limits. Fifteen states currently have limits, ranging in term lengths for each chamber of the legislature. Colorado’s limit is eight years (four terms) in the House and eight years (two terms) in the Senate.

In general, the panelists said term limits have resulted in lessened experience, leadership and knowledge among lawmakers.

Kurtz said the National Conference of State Legislators, along with two other national organizations and a dozen political scientists, conducted a three-year study on term limits. The study, which surveyed legislators in six states with term limits and three states without limits, delivered these findings:

  • Lawmakers spent less time on constituent services in term limit states than non-term limit states.
  • Lawmakers had less knowledge of statewide issues, legislative processes and committee issues in term limit states than non-term limit states.
  • Experience in key leadership positions, such as Speaker of the House, is lessened in term limit states.
  • There is more movement of legislators from one chamber to the other in term limit states. “In Colorado, with the eight-year maximum in each chamber has resulted in the Senate becoming the stronger body because it’s the chamber with more experience,” Kurtz said.
  • Committee chairpersons, the gatekeepers who slow down or amend poorly crafted bills, have less experience in term limit states.
  • In general, governors in term limit states tend to gain power in relation to the legislature when compared to non-term limit states.

DeLay said the term limit effect on local school boards is similar to the state level. Boards encounter less leadership experience, understanding of the job, institutional insight and relationship to the voters. Superintendents, much like governors, tend to end up with an elevated role.

Rural-area districts, especially, wind up with a limited pool of residents willing to serve on school boards, much less those with leadership abilities. Term limits serve to magnify those problems, DeLay said.

“It’s a very odd dynamic to me that a change that was supposed to make legislators more accountable to the electorate has made them less accountable to the electorate,” DeLay said. “I’m troubled by that.”

Brown said he’s noticed that, with the surge in term limits, caucuses now seem more focused on electing majorities of their party and less interested in electing people who will serve in the best interest of the state. Also, term limits have been accompanied by growth in partisan staff members in the statehouse, he said.

“The legislature as an institution and a department in the state of Colorado has been diminished,” Brown said.

A woman in the audience said the panel should have included a term limit advocate. She noted that 71 percent of Colorado voters cast ballots in favor of term limits.

“I do believe that the people are of the mindset that there is not representation because people become entrenched and power corrupts,” she said. “I would look at it in another way – to keep in touch with the people.”

A former Colorado House member in the audience said she can see positives and negatives about term limits. “I’m neutral,” she said. “In the end, the nonpartisan staff (at the statehouse) at the lobbyists have so much control because you (as a legislator) don’t have enough time to learn everything you need to know. After two years you’re still learning the codes to the bathrooms.”

The next Buechner Breakfast will be Feb. 3 on the topic of “Restorative Justice and the Criminal Justice System.”

(Photo: Buechner Breakfast panelists discuss the impact of term limits on governance over time. Pictured, from left, are: Doug Brown, former director of the Colorado Office of Legislative Legal Services; Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards; and Karl Kurtz, of the National Conference of State Legislators.)

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