Montana legislators debate rolling back term limits

October 25, 2013
Some Montana state legislators want more time to represent places like the Flathead River in Glacier National Park (Photo: Garth Lenz) Some Montana state legislators want more time to represent places like the Flathead River in Glacier National Park. (Garth Lenz)

Depending on which side you believe, term limits for state legislators are either the the cause of political dysfunction and a disaster for democracy, or the healthy impetus for fresh blood and new ideas in what would otherwise be a stagnant legislature.

That’s the constant debate in the 15 states that limit their legislators to a certain number of years in office. And it’s a debate that has sprung up once again in Montana, where legislative leaders are studying whether the state should revise or eliminate the constitutional amendment that limits their tenure.

Montana initially instituted its term limits — four two-year terms in the state House, two four-year terms in the state Senate — in 1992, part of a wave of term limit legislation that swept the nation in the early 1990s.

Term limits by state:

(Note: Term limits given are the lowest number of years anyone can serve in a given chamber. Some states, like Arkansas, have different limits for the state House, six years, and state Senate, eight years. Source: National Conference of State Legislatures.)

Two decades later, in interviews with more than a dozen sitting members, many legislators in both parties expressed frustration with the limits.

“Term limits have created a much more divisive and uneducated legislature in Montana,” said state Sen. John Brendan (R), of Scobey, near the borders with Canada and North Dakota. “Now under term limits, we have sophomores and sometimes freshmen heading committees, as they only have eight years of service.”

State Sen. Tom Facey, a Missoula Democrat, said it can take six to ten years to pass comprehensive legislation, and several sessions to learn enough about complex topics like education funding and taxes. State Rep. Kris Hansen, a Havre Republican, said term limits mean the legislature is led by less experienced leaders.

“Term limits need to change so that the institutional knowledge can be transferred from one generation to the next,” said Rep. David “Doc” Moore (R) of Missoula. “Currently we are only hurting ourselves.”

The Montana legislature is one of the least experienced in the country. At the start of the 2013 session, more than 70 percent of the state House had served two terms or less.

Legislators who want term limits overturned say the fact that the state House and Senate only meet every other year means the governor holds disproportionate power. State Rep. Mike Miller (R)  of Helmville, near Helena, has served about 270 days of session over his three terms, he said, making him one of the senior members of the legislature.

“One might ask, where in private business, after having been in your job for nine months, are you qualified to be senior management?” Miller said.

“It is nearly impossible to imagine that I would balance my own checkbook for two years in advance, let [alone] the budget for our entire state,” said state Rep. Ellie Hill (D), who represents a district around Missoula. “Not only does it leave the bureaucrats in the administrative branch in a huge advantage … but it leaves legislators with very little time to learn about the varying departments.”

“The strongest branch of government is the executive and the lobbyists,” said state Sen. Mary Caferro (D), who said she had voted for term limits when they were on the ballot in the early 1990s.

Some legislators, mostly Republicans, said they support term limits, in part because their constituents do.

“Montana is supposed to have a citizen legislature that is represented by your average Montanans. Term limits continuously open up seats to ensure a diverse amount of individuals, such as myself, have the chance to represent and share unique views,” added state Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R) of Billings.

Several states that instituted term limits in the early 1990s have already rolled back those laws. State supreme courts threw out term limits in Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, while legislators in Utah and Idaho voted to scrap limits about a decade into the experiment.

But those states had instituted limits by statute; Montana’s term limits are written into the state Constitution. That’s the most daunting challenge term limit opponents in Montana face: To roll back their rules, they will need voter approval. And Montana voters have twice voted to keep term limits.

“Voters in Montana will never repeal” term limits, said state Sen. Dave Lewis (R)  of Helena. “The voters like term limits and would extend [them] to the federal level if they could.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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