In 1990, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved State Question 632 to impose term limits on the service of legislators. The constitutional amendment, which received 67 percent of the vote, capped the number of years that Oklahoma citizens could serve in their Legislature at 12.
Twenty-six years later, many Capitol insiders and political stakeholders now look back wistfully on the days when competent lawmakers were not forced to leave office simply because the Earth had orbited the sun 12 times since they were first elected.
In 2016 alone, 30 members of the 149-seat Oklahoma Legislature are terming out. If you toss in other legislators who simply decided against running for re-election, about one-fourth the Legislature will be newly elected for the 2017 session.
This is a topic I have discussed at substantial length with lawmakers, lobbyists, media and political strategists over the past year, and I recently began accumulating statements on the topic for publication.
The following comments from Oklahoma Capitol insiders are offered anonymously to allow influential Oklahomans to speak freely on the topic. Each quote includes a basic description of its source’s background.
‘It seemed like a good idea’
“In 1990, it seemed like a good idea, but my vote for term limits has turned out to be the worst vote I have ever cast for a state question. It was an emotional vote, filled with anger and frustration with entrenched political interests who had controlled the state since statehood. Now, unelected bureaucrats hold sway at the State Capitol, waiting out legislators who reach their greatest level of effectiveness just about the time they leave.”
— An Oklahoma lobbyist with more than a dozen years of experience
‘A Legislature void of historical knowledge’
“One of our greatest rights as a citizen is our right to vote. However you look at it, term limits take away your right to vote. If, as a citizen, you dislike an elected official, it is not only your right but your obligation to become involved in the process and replace that official. It is not the job of the government to limit or determine who I can or cannot vote for. In Oklahoma, term limits have created a Legislature void of historical knowledge. With these limitations, goals have become short-term.”
— An Oklahoma lobbyist with 25 years of experience
‘Loss of institutional memory is devastating’
“Term limits served the purpose of bringing fresh blood into the system, but the loss of institutional memory is devastating for the operations of government. A good comparison (to House and Senate leadership elections): Would you want to hire the CEO of a business who only has six years’ experience? You want to have people with more experience in the higher positions of the Legislature. We’re trading institutional memory and how things should function in exchange for new blood and just a new name. Term limits were a national plan to get rid of long-serving Democratic state legislators. Some states have actually repealed their term limits after Republicans took over, but in Oklahoma the sentiment is so entrenched that it’s impossible to undo it or even lessen it. There’s even been a discussion of trying to put it in place for county officers.”
— A former legislator who was termed out of office
‘We have some of our best legislators leave early’
“There’s good and bad. The good is, you have certain people where that’s the best job they’ve ever had and they get enormously cloaked in the power of it, but they don’t really serve the people of Oklahoma. If you had didn’t have term limits, they would stay there as long as they could. We see people who go through 12 years and never actually author a bill that becomes law. The bad is two fold. First, in times when you’ve got a budget crunch like this, you’ve got so many new Reps and Senators walking in who have never really looked at a state budget, don’t know how these things work, don’t know how state agencies work, don’t understand the process and how all of it intertwines together. You have lobbyists who’ve been there 20 years who have a huge leg up on a freshman legislator. Secondly, because of term limits, with leadership elections in the majority, some of the most talented legislators that go in leave early, either to go make more money or they realize if they were on the wrong side of a leadership election, they’ll never get to be a committee chairman and they feel like a lame duck. So we have some of our best legislators leave early and some people who it’s the best job they’ve ever had stay the entire time. And, in my opinion, if it’s the best job you’ve ever had, you shouldn’t be in the Legislature. All in all, the good people and the valuable experience we lose probably has a higher negative impact than people being termed out who aren’t good for the state.”
— A former state party chairperson
‘It takes time to know who is self-interested’
“There are good and bad things with term limits. Fresh ideas and a willingness to buck the establishment are good traits — see Sen. Stephanie Bice who was new and did not fully understand the obstacles her alcohol-modernization effort faced. However, often, this leaves government administrators — both at the state and local levels — as the subject-matter experts, and many legislators defer to them or lobbyists. It takes time to know who is self-interested and who is moving the state forward. At least with lobbyists, legislators know they are self-interested — not always the case with government bureaucrats.”
— An Oklahoma lobbyist with 20 years of experience
‘The learning curve is sharp’
“Term limits for the state Legislature came about in a time of rapidly growing Republican voter registration and a rising number of GOP members in the House and Senate.
“The desire to expedite the long-awaited takeover is what led the impatient, if not greedy, legislators to put term limits on the ballot. Sure, it worked, but it would have only taken one or two cycles more for it to eventually happen in its own time. Using the Gene Stipe example was an easy way to push voter sentiment toward term limits.
“The costs of the GOP greed are varied.
“Many of the districts that became open due to term limits were still Democrat districts that leaned Republican. So, in order to find ideal candidates, many were encouraged to change party registration, which left the party with only half-hearted Republicans without long-term loyalty to the party ideals that were the foundation of the Republican takeover. This presented issues down the road when caucuses were expected to unite behind an agenda.
“Legislators no longer have the time to become subject matter experts in many, if any, areas. The learning curve is sharp and reliance on agency staff and bureaucrats, as well as long-time lobbyists and special interest groups, prevents legislators from building their own knowledge base. So members who may not even have a deep ideological base are also challenged by not having a knowledge base with which to formulate their opinions.
“Many members retire before their 12-year limit, with others on the constant quest for the next higher office they will seek. That is part of the reason attempts to remove offices such as labor commissioner and insurance commissioner from the ballot will never happen. Members need options after their terms run out. Members who are constantly looking for other positions will make different decisions than members who are complacent with their position and comfortable in their own districts.
“Did it work? Did it expedite the retirement of many long-term Democrats — yes. Did it create its own consequences? Of course it did.”
— A GOP operative with extensive campaign and governance experience
‘A mixed bag’
“Term limits have proven to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, we bring fresh faces with new ideas to the policy table; on the other hand, we lose years and years of experience and historical perspective. Over time, we’ve all learned how to deal with this. The bigger challenge is lack of voter engagement and understanding of the issues. The effects of term limits would be minimal if we had a more robust civic community to hold policymakers accountable for their actions.”
— A lobbyist with two decades of experience who has also served on numerous boards and commissions