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Term limits do little to diversify legislatures

Term limits have not led to significant increases in female or minority representation in state legislatures, according to a survey of the 15 states with term limits.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Term limits have not led to significant increases in female or minority representation in state legislatures, according to a survey of the 15 states with term limits.

"Term limits have not led to the new breed of diverse, citizen legislators proponents expected," said a study released Tuesday by the National Conference of State Legislatures at its annual meeting.

Between 1995 and 2004, the only term-limited assemblies with an increase in the number of women were California and South Dakota. In a majority of states with term limits, the number of female lawmakers decreased, the report said.

Some changes
Open seats caused by term limits did clear the way for an increase in Hispanic lawmakers in California, Florida and Arizona, and for blacks in Michigan and Arkansas.

But the report's authors argue that the increase in minority representation mirrors demographic trends in those states.

"No systematic differences exist in the number of racial and ethnic minorities in the term-limited legislatures versus non-limited legislatures," the report stated.

Twenty-one states imposed term limits between 1990 and 2000. But courts in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming later overturned those limits, and lawmakers in Utah and Idaho repealed theirs. A ballot measure to reinstate limits in Oregon is headed for a vote in November.

The study was unveiled at the NCSL's annual meetings in Tennessee, which has no term limits.

House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh has held his post since 1991, while John Wilder has been the speaker of the state Senate since 1971. Wilder, 86, is possibly the longest-serving head of a legislative body in U.S. history.

Forced out, but back in
By 2004, term limits in 13 states forced 1,200 lawmakers out of office, the study found. But many have returned in their assembly's other chamber, or have run for local office.

Turnover in term-limited House chambers was 11.5 percent higher in the 1990s than in the previous decade, leading to a shortage of seasoned lawmakers in statehouses.

"The difference under term limits is that these legislatures no longer have a small group of long-serving members whose leadership and expertise can guide a largely inexperienced legislature," the report said.

Since lawmakers are limited to as few as six years in office, jockeying for key leadership positions begins much earlier than in legislatures with unlimited tenures. Lack of experience can lead to increased influence by the executive branch, legislative staff and lobbyists, the report said.

Term limits limit effectiveness
"Term limits in states have done more to limit rather than enhance the effectiveness of the legislative branch," Karl Kurtz, director of state services at NCSL and a lead researcher in the study, said in a release.

Lawmakers have tried to better prepare incoming speakers - and to give them more time at the helm - in term-limited states:

- Florida and Alabama have chosen "speaker designates" a year before the session they will lead, and given them extra responsibility in the budget process and election coordination.

- The last two speakers in Michigan, which has a six-year limit, and Ohio, which has an eight-year limit, were chosen from the ranks of first- or second-term lawmakers.

- Arizona state Rep. Jim Weiers was House speaker in 2001-2002, but was forced out by term limits. So he spent two years in the Senate and was then re-elected to the House, where he was chosen to be speaker again.

At least 70 proposals to relax term limits have been introduced in state legislature since 1999. Only three passed - two that were overwhelmingly rejected in Arkansas and Montana in 2004, and one that was withdrawn by Florida lawmakers before it could reach the ballot.

Meanwhile, only two of at least 58 bills to repeal term limits were successful - Idaho in 2002 and Utah in 2003.