By Phill Brooks
I was inspired to write this column by a Missouri newspaper publisher who asked me to dedicate a column to one of the most dominating factors in Missouri's statehouse—voter-approved term limits.
The eight-year limit on service in a legislative chamber has had a dramatic impact. Like many in the statehouse, I've found term limits to be detrimental in solving the state's most complicated and politically difficult problems.
Term limits restrict the time necessary to develop a comprehensive understanding of these issues. Further, some solutions require years to build coalitions for success—sometimes more years than possible under term limits.
Obvious examples are the failures to craft a comprehensive solution to the state's deteriorating transportation infrastructure and to address the growing dominance of secret, dark-money financing in politics. Compounding the problem has been the impact from term limits on legislators entering their final year in the statehouse.
With so little prospect of legislative accomplishment which can take years, some final-year lawmakers seem more focused on future political or governmental office. Others have struck me as somewhat detached.
But, I've also seen a few "lame ducks" inspired to rebel against their party lines since they have little to lose. There have been unexpected consequences.
Many senior lobbyists have been among the losers, as some term-limit supporters had predicted. Before term limits, lobbyists had time to develop long-term relationships with legislators.
The state's most influential lobbyist, the late John Britton, told me how he'd identify the most promising freshman legislators for him to assist in their development into roles of influence in later years—including more than one House speaker. While special-interest lobbyists like Britton gained from the era before term limits, there also was a public benefit.
Maintaining legislative relationships forced lobbyists to be honest. A lobbyist could pay a steep price for deceiving a legislator who might stay around for decades. And with the relationships legislators developed among themselves during the years before term limits, word quickly spread about lobbyist reputations.
Another change in the term-limit era has been the growing ideological agenda of the General Assembly. While a major factor in that trend involves changes in political party agendas, I think another cause has been the lack of time for legislators to evolve.
Many first-year legislators arrive in the General Assembly with an ideological agenda. Prior to term limits, legislators often evolved to understand the complexities and the need for compromise to achieve solutions. But some term-limit supporters charged those legislators were being co-opted by the system. So, those who seek a more ideologically pure agenda might be considered winners.
Other clear winners from term limits are government bureaucrats. Legislators are not around long enough to extract a price for an administration official lying or failing to follow legislative intent.
In recent years, budget committee members have blasted government bureaucrats for failing to follow legislative intent—but with no subsequent consequences because the legislative critics were forced out of office by term limits.
Another winner from term limits may be local governments. More than a few legislators driven out by term limits had such a commitment to public service that they've moved on to city and county governments which, I suspect, benefit from the skills and knowledge gained in the legislature.
I should confess a conflict I have with this issue. Term limits have been awful for statehouse reporters.
We've lost long-term legislative sources. It takes years to build trust on both sides. It takes time before I can trust a public figure to be honest and candid.
And for a legislator, it takes just as many years to be comfortable that I will honor a confidentiality agreement and will use the information provided for accurate and meaningful stories.
These kinds of relationships are critical for me to inform you about what's really happening in government on issues of importance. But with term limits, I find myself with fewer of these sources.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.
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