Term limit turmoil in Oregon. (Limiting Terms).
Representative Jeff Kropf, a grass-seed farmer in Oregon's Willamette Valley, is one of the Legislative Assembly's most affable members. He's known for donning leathers and aviator outfits to introduce bills dealing with motorcycles and airplanes, and his TV-anchor voice stands out as it booms off the oaken walls of the House of Representatives.
But three months ago, as the legislature raced to end its second special session, Kropf rose to the floor in barely controlled anger. Minutes earlier, he had spoken passionately about the need to refer a term limit measure to voters. The Oregon Supreme court's decision to toss the state's term limit law and the threat of a more restrictive measure backed by U.S. Term Limits made it crucial, he said, that lawmakers send their own version to the people.
"We are not putting anything over on the voters here," he said. "We're sending out a reasonable, good term limits choice. We need to give the voters of Oregon an option."
Then he launched into an attack against an ad that he said had appeared over the weekend, sponsored by term limit advocates and erroneously stating he had supported a successful attempt by the legislature to speed up a potential challenge to term limits.
"This ad was full of lies and deception," he thundered. "It refers to me as an entrenched politician. What a joke that is. I ask you to stand with me to say no to special interests telling Oregonians what to think arid how to vote."
The outburst set the stage for yet another chapter in Oregon's saga with term limits--one that is expected to end in November. Ted Piccolo, the state's most prominent term limits activist, is circulating an initiative that would re-instate a measure voters passed in 1992 and that was voided by the state Supreme court earlier this year.
As of press time, even Piccolo's fiercest critics believed he would gather the 89,048 signatures he needed to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. The measure would continue Oregon's decade-long experiment with term limits, which has drawn criticism from lobbyists, legislators and editorial boards and just as fervent support from Piccolo and U.S. Term Limits, which has run radio ads lambasting legislators for even hinting at changing the law.
A decade ago, at the height of the term limit movement, Oregon imposed the strictest set of limits in the nation, later joined by Arkansas, California and Michigan. Lawmakers could serve no more than six years in the House (three two-year terms) and eight years in the Senate (two four-year terms) for a lifetime total of 12 years. The constitutional amendment also limited U.S. House members to six years and U.S. senators to 12 years.
The campaign's political action committee was called, a bit whimsically, Let Incumbents Mosey Into the Sunset (LIMITS), and raised $1,935, a pittance compared with the $3.8 million collected in the same election by truckers who opposed a measure to restrict triple-trailer rigs. Another big issue that year, one that grabbed the attention of editorial writers in Oregon and headlines nationwide, would have required government officials to discourage homosexuality. The resulting "no on 9" campaign drew more than $2 million, including cash from prominent Hollywood types.
Compared with Measure 9, which took up 34 pages of arguments in the voters' pamphlet, there was barely any opposition to term limits. The pamphlet had five arguments in favor of limits and only one against, from the state AFL-CIO. The national sour-on-incumbents mood had spread to the Pacific Coast. To Oregonians just starting to come out of a decade-long economic slump, the pro-limit arguments were seductive.
"This year, as in every election year, we hear the politicians promise us change. Just re-elect them, they tell us, and times will get better," wrote chief petitioner Frank Eisenzimmer, a well-known anti-tax activist. "But we have been re-electing them year after year and times are not getting better. For many, times are getting worse."
Even though the limits would eventually affect all 90 members of the legislature, lawmakers shied away from campaigning against the measure.
"People were concerned with their own survival," speculated Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts. "It would have been hard not to look self-serving."
Measure 3 passed by an overwhelming 70 percent and took effect immediately. That meant that lawmakers, who meet in session only every two years for six months, were forced out in droves starting in 1998. More than a third of the House's 60 members (and two senators) could not run for re-election that year. Two years later, 17 House members and five senators were termed out.
DETRIMENTS SOON EVIDENT
Since then, political pundits and legislators have complained about inexperienced freshmen replacing the veteran legislators with whom they've developed decades-long relationships. Since lawmakers meet every other year, they spend only 18 months actually legislating. Not enough time, they say, to develop complex ideas such as the Oregon Health Plan, which rations health care for low-income Oregonians.
And lawmakers who hear the clock ticking the second they reach their desks are more impatient to stamp the Legislative Assembly with their signature.
"You may attract candidates with one purpose or passion, and it's hard to get them interested in a broader range of issues," said former Republican Senate President Brady Adams, who was forced out by term limits after the 1999 session. "The intensity increases because you don't have an unlimited time to work on things."
The effects of term limits were especially evident in Adams's last session, which started with the rare coup of a sitting speaker--himself only a two-termer--by a colleague who had served the same amount of time as he. With a crop of 27 freshmen and a first-time chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the 1999 legislature dragged into July and became the third-longest ever.
The lack of experience is especially perilous these days, lawmakers say, as Oregon faces the highest unemployment in the nation, an expected revenue shortfall of $1.3 billion for the 2003-2005 biennium and a school funding crisis that the Legislative Assembly seems unable to resolve.
One lawmaker was so dismayed by the lack of a deep roster that he introduced a bill last session to create the paid positions of senator emeritus and representative emeritus. Elected by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, they would have advised members on decorum of the chambers and the history behind perennial issues, such as school finance and workers' compensation. But Republican leaders, worried that the proposal would convince voters there was no need to retool the term limit law, allowed the idea to die in committee.
Former Senator Neil Bryant says term limits hinder leadership. There's no time for leaders to get trained. 'The sessions are longer, and it's harder to move an agenda," he says. "The current legislature works hard, but they're missing their mentors."
Supporters, meanwhile, applauded the ideas new lawmakers were introducing, such as one that limited the number of bills each legislator could introduce.
"Just how busy does the legislature need to be, tinkering with things that don't need to be tinkered with?" Piccolo says. "Putting a limit on what lawmakers can do brings the power back to the individuals on the street.'
CHANGING VOTERS' MINDS
Although most lawmakers agreed the limits were a terrible idea, they couldn't agree on how to send them back to voters for a rethink. A proposal to tweak the limits in 1999 got tangled up with another to hold annual sessions; both died in committee in the session's closing hours.
But in 2001, lawmakers came up with a plan: Test the validity of the measure in court. They got the idea after a judge ruled that a property rights measure voters passed in 2000 was unconstitutional because it violated a requirement that amendments be voted on separately. The property rights measure contained two distinct proposals.
Lawmakers reasoned that since the 1992 term limit measure dealt both with state legislators and with members of Congress (the U.S. Supreme Court later threw out the congressional limits), a case could be made that the measure violated the separate amendment requirement. Perhaps, they said, voters really wanted the congressional limits and were forced to vote on the legislative limits because they were part of the same measure.
So they crafted an unorthodox plan that had many in the Capitol scratching their heads. It went like this: The legislature passed a law allowing legislative and statewide candidates running in 2002 to file for office in April 2001 rather than September, when the filing period normally began. The idea was that an ineligible legislator would file to run, elections officials would reject the attempt, and the legislator would start a lawsuit in circuit court.
The bill, which passed 31-21 in the House and 17-11 in the Senate, also provided that if any section of the term limit law was found unconstitutional, an appeal would go straight to the state Supreme Court. Hopefully, the lustices would rule quickly enough for a lawmaker to file for office by the March '02 deadline, allowing 27 termedout lawmakers to return to the legislature.
And that's exactly what happened. In January, the Supreme Court threw term limits out, saying Measure 3 made too many unrelated changes at once to the Oregon Constitution. Piccolo, the term limit activist, immediately announced he'd try to restore the limits, but with a catch: The new initiative was retroactive, meaning it would apply to all the lawmakers who had been scheduled to leave under the old law, even if they were re-elected.
What makes Piccolo and other term limit advocates particularly angry is the legislature's success in crafting a ready-made court case to challenge Measure 3, the success of which subverted the will of voters, Piccolo said.
"They decided to take a back-door way," he says. "That doesn't sit right."
Lawmakers, who may have thought they could breathe easy with the Supreme Court decision, viewed the Piccolo initiative with alarm. (The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, had done a poll in 1999 and found that 56 percent said the limits had made the legislature "more responsive to average citizens by bringing in new ideas and new people;" 32 percent said the limits had made the legislature "less responsive and more divisive by removing the most experienced people." The telephone survey of 501 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.)
Lawmakers fretted that U.S. Term Limits, which had contributed $25,000 to Measure 3, would be back with a vengeance and buckets of money.
So Kropf, with support from Representative Alan Bates, a Democrat, played offense. They persuaded legislative leaders to allow them to introduce their own measure, one that would keep the 12-year, lifetime ban, but would allow lawmakers to serve all their time in the House or the Senate.
But after passing the House, the bill ran into trouble in the Senate. Lawmakers, trying to shore up an $845 million deficit in the state's two-year, $12 billion budget, threatened to vote against a budget proposal if the term limit bill came up.
"I felt it was a mistake," Kropf said. "It will not benefit Oregon in the long run."
The shortfall has grown again to $880 million, and lawmakers as of press time were expecting a third special session in June. Although Kropf wants to revisit the issue, House Speaker Mark Simmons is lukewarm about the idea.
That would leave opponents of the limits fighting Piccolo's initiative. A group led by former Democratic Governor Barbara Roberts and former Republican Governor Vic Atiyeh has formed to oppose it and are getting help from Paul Phillips, a prominent lobbyist and former Republican legislator. Lawmakers, though, worry that campaigning against the limits would appear self-serving and don't plan to make much noise about the initiative.
Hibbitts, the Portland pollster, said he has no idea whether the initiative will pass. A January 2001 poll by U.S. Term Limits showed that if voters had the chance to vote on the same term limits for legislators as they did in 1992, 71 percent would approve the limits and 21 percent wouldn't. The same poll showed that 65 percent thought term limits on the legislature "has been a good thing for state government in Oregon" while 13.5 percent thought it has been bad. The survey's sample size was 400, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
A January 2002 poll conducted for legislators who oppose the limits said voters support the concept of term limits, but only one proposal--one that would limit legislators to a total of 12 consecutive years--received more than 50 percent support. The poll surveyed 500 registered voters statewide, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Voters' anger at politicians has ebbed since 1992, Hibbitts says. On the other hand, Oregonians don't react well to having their decisions tossed. In 1994, voters approved by a vote of 51 percent to 48 percent a measure legalizing physician-assisted suicide. When the Legislative Assembly sent a repeal of the measure back to voters two years later, it failed, 60 percent to 40 percent.
Supporters of term limits are likely to play up that angle in their campaign to get the limits reinstated, a campaign to which U.S. Term Limits is expected to contribute heavily. The opposition probably will stress that Oregonians need experienced legislators to deal with the state's budget woes--a variation of the "you wouldn't want a physician with a couple of years of medical school to operate on you" theme.
If the measure passes, it would create a whole new conundrum. Under the retroactivity provision, if the nine term-limited lawmakers who were able to run again because of the Supreme Court decision get re-elected, they would be kicked out of office at the same time, meaning a spate of new elections just as the legislature convenes in January.
Or not. It's unclear whether the legislature, which has the power to seat elected members, could do so for those nine colleagues. Or for that matter, whether a court challenge would delay a final decision long enough to allow the lawmakers to serve one term before being forced out.
"If [the legislature] says they're qualified and they start passing bills and then the Supreme Court says they aren't qualified, what does that do?" wonders state elections manager Fred Neal. "We're talking a constitutional crisis."
RELATED ARTICLE: STATES WITH TOUGHEST TERM LIMITS
Oregon's term limits were the nation's stiffest. Legislators were limited to a maximum of three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate. That's identical to limits in Arkansas, California and Michigan. Oregon's limits, however, had an additional catch--legislators couldn't serve more than a total of 12 years.
Historically, a common legislative career path is to serve first in the House, then move on to the Senate. Under Oregon's limits, a legislator following that traditional career path would be able to serve only 10 years--six in the House, followed by one four-year Senate term. He couldn't run for re-election to the Senate, because that 12-year limit would kick in mid-term. A legislator bucking the traditional pattern could serve eight years in the Senate then move on for a single House term, thus serving the maximum 12 years. There's no evidence that's becoming common, though.
Arkansas and Oregon's legislatures have a second feature that sets them apart from the other strict term limit states--they have legislative sessions only every other year. So while a California legislator who serves the maximum number of years allowed under the limit sits through 14 legislative sessions, an Arkansas legislator would see a maximum of seven sessions (three in the House and four in the Senate). An Oregon legislator following the traditional career path would participate in only five sessions.
Legislatures in these four states with the strictest term limit laws are looking for ways to make them more workable. In Oregon, it's been proposed that the chamber-specific limits be lifted, simply limiting legislators to a total of 12 years in office. Allowing legislators to continue running for the same chamber for the whole 12 years would ensure that at least a few members would stick around long enough to develop the institutional memory, leadership abilities and issue expertise that critics say are diluted by the stricter term limits.
California voters nixed an idea to relax their term limits this past March. That initiative proposal would have allowed termed-out legislators to run for up to four more years after gathering signatures from 20 percent of the voters in their district. Term limit critics say they'll be back on the ballot soon with another idea for loosening the limits.
An initiative petition to loosen term limits is circulating in Arkansas right now, too. It would change the limits to allow up to 12 years in each chamber. Proponents have until July 5 to gather the 70,601 signatures necessary to gain ballot access. A bill that's similar to the Arkansas initiative is pending in the Michigan Legislature, as well.
Jennie Drage Bowser, NCSL
Idaho voters may repeal the repeal.
Idaho voters will decide this fall whether the Legislature's unilateral repeal of the state's term limit law was justified.
Term limit supporters gathered enough signatures by May to put a popular referendum on the November ballot, giving Idahoans the final say as to whether the repeal of the 1994 voter-approved law should be upheld.
Lawmakers voted last winter to repeal the term limit statute, overrode Governor Dirk Kempthorne's veto and became the first Legislature in the nation to end restrictions on terms of service.
Now it's back in the hands of the voters. It's only the fourth time in the state's history that a legislative act has been subjected to a referendum. This one will be called Proposition 2, and it will take a "no" vote to reinstate the law. "The referendum is putting the Legislature on trial," says Don Morgan, who is leading the campaign to undo the legislative action.
"It's an abusive, out-of-control and reckless Legislature, and the people are tired of it," says Morgan. He says the issue is fracturing the GOP, which has an iron hold on most of the elected offices in the state.
Idaho Republican Party Chairman Trent Clark acknowledges that the issue has the potential to tear apart the party, but predicts it won't happen. The party platform opposes term limits, and party supporters are unwilling to let the issue divide them, Clark says.
Term limit backers spent more than $200,000 to gather signatures under the tight deadlines allowed for getting a referendum on the ballot. They needed 43,685 signatures. They got 46,741 valid names, with more than half collected in the Boise area.
Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Term Limits dumped $347,000 into Idaho ahead of the May 28 primary, a sign of the group's financial might and how it might be used before the November election. Campaign finance reports show the Term Limits America Political Action Committee also gave $50,000 to underwrite the campaigns of more than two dozen candidates across the state. Only $465 came from three donations by individuals.
"You can do a lot of things with a lot of money," says Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes. He expects the Republican-controlled Legislature's actions will be upheld once voters understand what they are voting for.
In the May primaries, with the entire Legislature up for election, 11 incumbents were defeated, but the majority of those were legislators facing other legislators in newly carved districts, thanks to redistricting. Only four incumbents fell to nonincumbent challengers.
Three of the four had voted to repeal term limits, but it is unclear whether that was the deciding factor in those contests. Senator Darrel Deide, a retired school superintendent, appeared to be the victim of targeting both by term limits supporters and the teachers' union upset with the Legislature's education spending decisions. In the same county where a newcomer defeated him, voters gave GOP nominations to candidates who supported the Legislature's repeal of term limits, as well as candidates who did not. Democrats said the lack of ousted incumbents bodes well for the minority party. It will be able to carry the term limit issue to the November elections. Republicans said voters demonstrated support for their individual legislators and will continue to do so in the fall.
Term limit leader Morgan said the inability of voters to oust more incumbents is proof the state needs a term limit law and predicted voters will reinstate the statutes later this year.
COURT CHALLENGE NIXED
Term limit supporters also brought their fight against the Legislature to the Idaho Supreme Court, charging that the lawmakers' action was unconstitutional because the repeal bill's emergency clause--allowing local elected leaders' names to be on the ballot in May--doesn't explain the reason for the repeal.
But the court ruled unanimously, as it has in the past, that the Legislature's declaration of an emergency is the Legislature's business, and it's not for the court to second-guess the action.
"In this case, the petitioners are asking the court to interfere with the legislative process, and this court has held repeatedly that it is not proper to do so," Vice Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder opined less than 24 hours after the court listened to the arguments.
The high court also sided with lawmakers who said statutes passed by initiative are just as subject to repeal or modification as a law passed by the Legislature.
"The wisdom of term limits or the judgment of the Legislature in repealing term limits legislation is the province of the legislative branch of Idaho government," Justice Wayne Kidwell wrote. "Here, the Legislature has acted, perhaps unwisely, but within the Constitution of the state of Idaho."
A district court lawsuit challenging the Legislature's action is still pending with hearings expected to start this summer. The 1994 initiative's defenders say, among other things, that the House GOP caucus should not have met behind closed doors before the tem limit vote to privately discuss the issue. Because Republicans control 61 of 70 seats in the House, the meeting constituted a "super majority."
And while the term limit fight moved from the Legislature to the judicial branch there were other term limit trials under way--dozens of them in each of the state's 35 legislative districts.
Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Term Limits has set up a headquarters blocks away from the statehouse. The group's political director, Bill Wilson, is spending countless hours in Boise leading the charge for what is dubbed "Repeal the Repeal."
Candidates are being asked to sign a pledge never to undo a law passed by the voters. And Morgan has been diligently writing $1,000 checks to legislative candidates to oust incumbents this year.
Morgan wouldn't say how much money will be spent to defeat anti-term limit lawmakers and secure the referendum's success.
Lisa Grace Lednicer is a state politics and government reporter for The Oregonian newspaper.