Robert Gehrke: Term limits are a neat idea that won’t solve the problems its proponents hope it will

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In his latest column, Robert Gehrke writes that “the real fundamental problem we have isn’t legislators who serve too long — it’s that elections are not competitive.”

This week, the United Utah Party launched an initiative drive to let voters decide whether to limit state legislators to 12 years in office and hold the governor and other executive officers to two four-year terms.

The last time we had a real debate about term limits was 25 years ago (a short-lived effort in 2015 aside), when voters rose up to put the favorite populist proposal on the ballot. Back then, the Legislature stepped in and passed their own term limits, taking the wind out of the sails of the initiative drive, only to repeal them in 2003, before anyone was actually term-limited out of office.

It remains the most cynical thing I’ve seen the Legislature do in my time covering politics and maybe that alone is a good enough reason to support term limits.

But while my heart tells me I should be on board with this latest push, my experience tells me it won’t really accomplish what proponents hope it will and could make our system even worse.

Studies have found that states with term limit laws don’t actually end up with higher turnover. It’s counterintuitive in some ways, but take Arizona, for example: After that state enacted term limit laws, legislative retirements dropped by 10 percent, according to research by a pair of University of Missouri doctoral students.

Turnover slowed and lawmakers stayed longer. And when they did leave, more moved up to the state’s upper chamber. In South Dakota, which has term limits, three lawmakers on average have moved from the lower to upper chamber every election since 1998.

In other states, term-limited lawmakers are more likely to move down to the lower chamber. Or else they leave and come back, since most states with a term-limit law merely impose a cooling-off period — as the proposed initiative does — allowing a lawmaker to run again after sitting out a term.

If that doesn’t work, they become lobbyists. Michigan enacted a term-limits law in 1992 and in 2012, the Detroit Free Press reported that a quarter of the legislators who had been subject to term limits had left the Legislature to become lobbyists.

Michigan doesn’t have a “cooling off” period for lobbyists. Utah has one, but it has loopholes. The point being, rather than draining the swamp, term limits have the potential to make it swampier.

What it does drain, is the brains.

You can make your own “what brains?” joke here, but there is value in institutional experience.

In most cases, it takes a new lawmaker two to four years to learn the process. Rookie lawmakers are more easily influenced by leadership or senior members. In an experience vacuum, legislators have to be more reliant on staff or else executive agency heads and lobbyists.

Take Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. He could be the poster child for term limits. Hillyard has been in the Legislature for 38 years, 34 of them in the Senate.

“When we’re in session, not a day goes by where we don’t get into some discussion about an idea someone has and I say, ‘We tried that 20 years ago and it didn’t work and here’s why,’ ” Hillyard said. “I think you handicap your constituency when you take that [experience] away.”

And Hillyard is an anomaly in the Utah Legislature.

According to data crunched by Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown, the average Utah House member has five years experience. The average senator has a little more than 9 1/2 years.

Sixty-six of the current 74 House members and 21 of the 29 senators have served 10 years or less.

(None of the current lawmakers would be subject to the 12-year term limit, by the way. The first class term limited out would be those up in the 2034 election.)

The real fundamental problem we have isn’t legislators who serve too long — it’s that elections are not competitive. In most cases, they don’t provide a meaningful check on lawmakers.

And it’s true that part of that is due to the advantages an incumbent enjoys. Those already in power have more access to corporate and lobbyist money that makes it hard to knock them off. But it’s certainly not impossible.

Last election, Democrats Kathleen Riebe and Andrew Stoddard both knocked off incumbents in the Senate and House respectively for two reasons — they were competitive districts and they worked like crazy.

The bigger reason that incumbents in Utah win is the lack of competitive districts. That is partly a consequence of being in a state with single-party dominance, but also because districts are often drawn to benefit incumbents.

Term limits could change that, but only on the margins. A more substantive change could come (assuming the Legislature doesn’t monkey with it) through Proposition 3, the Better Boundaries Initiative, which created an independent commission to recommend fair districts in the 2021 redistricting process.

What we need is for elections to mean something, to give voters a real choice and let them be an actual check on legislative power. A wholesale purge of legislators, whether they’re good or bad, popular or despised, after 12 years is arbitrary; it actually deprives rather than empowers voters the ability to choose who they want in office, and won’t bring the change that supporters of the term-limit initiative hope it will.