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Would Term Limits Save or Doom Our State Legislature?

In the state budget fight, term limits a potentially valuable trade chip between the legislature and the governor. But will they have any effect on Springfield?

A plaque near the office of Michael Madigan shows how long he’s been House Speaker—and, apparently, the last time anyone thought it was worth updating.   Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

While lots of eyes are on the political changes moving quickly in Washington, D.C., Springfield remains an unholy mess as the state careens towards the end of the stopgap budget at the end of the year. AFSCME just filed suit to block the automatic imposition of new contract terms. Governor Rauner vetoed the Chicago Public Schools pension bill, costing the school system $215 million, in the midst of a fight over whether Democrats reneged on the promise of a pension-reform bill in exchange for the assistance. The House passed a resolution, not binding but with heavy support, that taxes can’t be increased during the January lame-duck session.

But the big dilemma is simple: Rauner says that, for a new stopgap budget, he wants a permanent property tax freeze and a 2018 ballot measure for a constitutional amendment on term limits.

Rauner’s push for term limits is clearly aimed at deposing House Speaker Michael Madigan, who’s held that office almost every year since 1983. But, it’s also a very popular idea among voters, in Illinois and other states; polling suggests that the term-limit amendment would be likely to pass.

State legislature term limits have already been implemented in other states (currently 15), which means there’s precedent to see how well it works. And the short answer is that term limits change a lot—but also, it seems, not that much.

One thing everyone basically agrees on is that, with term limits, the legislature becomes weaker as a result of its inexperience. Because of that, power transfers to the governor and to staff and bureaucrats who become the keepers of institutional knowledge. But it doesn’t seem to make lobbyists more powerful, as Alan Greenblatt reported in a thorough piece for Governing a decade ago:

However term limits may be playing out, it’s hard to find a lobbyist of any stripe who likes them. “I don’t know one lobbyist who thinks it’s a good thing,” says Rick Farmer, who has written about term limits as an academic and now works for the Oklahoma House. “If term limits are such a good thing for lobbyists, why do so many lobbyists hate them?”

Greenblatt’s not the only person to have noticed this. Politicians are a good vector for lobbyists; turnover makes it harder to form relationships. Things are generally a bit more chaotic:

Most interviewees reported that committees are weaker and less collegial and courteous under term limits, due to the high turnover in committee chairs and the reduced legislative and policy experience of members. Research in California indicates that committee gatekeeping has declined significantly. It is difficult for inexperienced legislators to identify problematic legislation, so fewer bills are killed in committee. The situation in Colorado is similar, where bills are less well-crafted when passed to the floor. In Maine, interviewees report that members give less deference to the work of committees, and committee reports are more likely to be challenged on the floor than in the past, even if they were adopted unanimously or with large majorities.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result is worse. In the wonderfully named “Coping With Term Limits: A Practical Guide” from the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, the authors found that while, yes, there was lots of turnover, loss of institutional knowledge among legislators, more confrontation, and less civility, “the study did not reveal evidence that the policy produced in term-limited legislatures in any way differs from or is of poorer quality than that produced in non-term-limited legislatures.” Results on state spending don’t seem to show a trend.

If there’s a consensus, it seems to be… eh. For instance, Greenblatt: “The main effects of term limits are procedural, and it’s difficult to make a convincing case that they’ve made any one particular policy worse, let alone imperiled the quality of life in any state that observes them.”

In 2012, the Center for Ethics in Public Life did a briefing after a conference of experts on the matter. The conclusion is kind of a shrug.

All in all, after the implementation of term limits neither the complete collapse of the legislative process forecast by some term limits opponents, nor the beneficent revolution of the citizen legislator described by some advocates, have come to pass. Overall political scientists and many who work in and with the legislature have come to view the unintended negatives of term limits as outweighing the positives. On the other hand, term limits have a very clear and strong popular mandate that it would be both politically dangerous and very difficult to challenge.

This is echoed by Christopher Z. Mooney of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois-Springfield, writing in 2007, just one of the times the issue’s come up here:

As Illinois voters decide next year whether to establish a constitutional convention, they should resist pat claims about quick fixes and think clearly about what any institutional changes would mean for the state. The recent history of term limits in the American states may provide a cautionary tale in this regard.

Do voters want wholesale changes in the structure of Illinois state government? Just how unhappy is the public over the current political climate in Springfield? While making long-term decisions on temporary pique is not wise, if voters have a more fundamental dissatisfaction with state politics and government they may wish to roll the dice on a constitutional convention next November.

So, term limits are probably not great, but they’re probably not so bad that offering up a vote on term limits—perhaps fairly lengthy ones to strike a balance between loss of institutional knowledge and dominance by a Madigan-like figure—as a bargaining chip could be a reasonable move. It’ll likely be a popular move as well, even if that would be cold comfort to legislators setting an end date to their own jobs.

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