POSTED ON NOVEMBER 18, 2009:
Kiss and Make Up?
Is it time to revisit term limits to give representatives more time to develop long-term, comprehensive plans?
Admit it -- it felt good to stick it to The Man.
Sure, it was almost two decades ago that Oklahomans vented frustration with politics-as-usual and became the first state to slap term limits on a Legislature widely regarded as overpaid, under-worked and loutish.
Yet, it seems like only yesterday that I was a member of the mob that came to believe term limits was the magic bullet ... that 12 years at the public trough was plenty long enough ... that new blood would generate fresh ideas that would lift our state from its economic doldrums and socioeconomic morass.
How naïve could we be?
In a collective fit of pique, we abdicated our electoral power to decide who serves and who doesn't -- and for how long.
Even worse, we empowered already potent special interests and entrenched bureaucrats whose experience now affords a significant advantage in the lawmaking process over House and Senate lineups with more rookies than ever before scrambling to even locate the Capitol restrooms.
Why discuss this now? After all, there's nothing to suggest Oklahomans are even thinking of -- much less willing to -- repeal term limits they imposed by a nearly 2-1 margin.
First, terms limits are back in the news after Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina proposed constitutional amendment to do to Congress and America what Oklahoma and 14 other states have done to their state legislatures.
Second, Oklahoma voters will decide in November 2010 whether to extend a two-term limit to all statewide elected officials, not just governor.
And third, the revolving door created by term limits exacerbates a short-term mentality that focuses ever more on what will sell in the next election -- not on what is in the long-term interests of state-building.
It's as if Oklahoma is enduring a real-life 50 First Dates in which its legislative memory is regularly wiped clean, leading to a repeat of the same blunders that stalled state progress in the past.
Moreover, the absence of institutional memory leads lawmakers to re-study many of the same issues and re-pose many of the same questions pursued by previous legislatures -- rather than building on already gathered information to focus on and produce real solutions to the state's most intractable problems.
Oklahoma was the first state to enact term limits in September 1990. Two months later, California and Colorado jumped aboard. Eventually, 21 states imposed them.
Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states still have term limits. They were repealed by two state legislatures [Idaho and Utah] and thrown out by four state Supreme Courts [Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming].
Oklahoma was ripe two decades ago to embrace a knee-jerk concept like term limits for two reasons: Then state Sen. Gene Stipe and a moribund economy.
Stipe, a powerful Democratic senator from McAlester who had served in the Legislature since the late 1940s, drove some of the state's leading powers-that-be -- especially Daily Oklahoman publisher Edward L. Gaylord -- absolutely nuts.
They tried everything to beat him at the ballot box but couldn't. Stipe may have been the Prince of Darkness elsewhere in Oklahoma, but he was simply a Prince in Little Dixie.
Adding to his legend and seeming invincibility: He slipped away unscathed from numerous federal and state corruption investigations.
At the same time, the state was still struggling to recover from the 1980s oil bust that bankrupted many and left many more jobless -- and with few prospects for quickly rebuilding their lives.
The Legislature became the perfect foil and term limits the magic elixir.
Make no mistake: This was no grass roots movement. This was one of the nation's first "astro-turf" campaigns in which deep-pocketed special interests created a faux grass roots movement that deftly melded Oklahoma's populist roots -- a historical distrust of perceived elites, including the Legislature -- with a disdain for Stipe and an anxiety over personal economic security.
It was easier for most Oklahomans to stick a thumb in the Legislature's eye than it was to consider the long-term implications of imposing term limits.
Some tried to jump-start the discussion, but their warnings about ceding even more power to wealthy special interests and bureaucrats seemed primarily about preserving incumbency and its power.
Since Oklahoma imposed term limits, more than half the state's 149 senators and representatives have been forced from office automatically, according to the NCSL. Others have departed before completing their maximum number of terms.
Lost was a wealth of experience.
With more experienced hands on deck, would lawmakers have been so quick to enact $770 million in tax cuts during the pre-recession plenty? Or would longer-serving members have reminded what happened when the oil bust obliterated state revenues and required a hefty tax increase to maintain basic services?
It's that short-term vs. long-term point again. The short-term view: Slash taxes, curry favor with special interests that benefit from the tax cuts, collect big campaign donations from said special interest, win another term. Long-term: Target extra revenues during times of plenty to finance costly infrastructure and invest in the future so that when the tough times come -- and they always do -- you're better positioned to weather the storm.
Dave Herbert knows these competing interests as well as anyone. The former Midwest City senator-turned-lobbyist served in the Legislature when term limits were approved and now works to educate lawmakers on issues important to his clients.
"It takes the vision out of elected officials," Herbert said. "Elected officials shouldn't be legislating just for today. To me, an elected official is legislating for the future -- for long-term solutions.
"You can't think far enough down the road when you're looking at a 12-year limit."
It takes time to fully study the issues, ask the right questions, develop the long-term goals and build the kind of relationships and credibility with fellow members necessary to tackle the toughest, most complex issues.
Yet, we've taken that most precious commodity away from our lawmakers -- all because we were ticked. Isn't it past time that we soberly and coolly look at what term limits wrought? The problems we face today in Oklahoma demand no less.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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