An experiment on the fly: State faces term limits

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A story by The Associated Press this weekend points out how Nebraskans are performing an unique experiment on the fly.

It would be interesting to watch from a distance. Unfortunately, the future of our state depends on the outcome.

Nebraska is the last state to have imposed legislative term limits, approving them by 56 percent of Nebraska voters following a citizen petition drive.

The law bars senators from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms in the Legislature, but they could return after sitting out one term.

The idea is sold on the idea that "citizen" legislators will serve the public good better than "career politicians," and that representatives who know their time in office is limited will perform differently than those who may be more concerned about getting re-elected.

Those who are perpetually re-elected accumulate unfair perks, power and influence over those who are new to office, they say. And, term limit supporters say limiting time in office is more conducive to a true democracy.

Points that term-limit opponents make included that freshmen legislators are likely to be slow accomplishing much, and will be unduly dependent on career staffers and lobbyists who work for special interests.

And, they argue, politicians' need to go back to the voters for re-election makes them more responsive to the voters who sent them there.

Opponents argue that term limits are already in place. They're called the voting booth.

Chief among the vocal opponents is Sen. Ernie Chambers, who is probably right when he says that most Nebraskans who voted for term limits were actually voting against him.

"Their stupidity behind the whole thing lies with the fact that I can't be there forever, and it's a mistake to dismantle a branch of government because of one man," Chambers is quoted as saying in the AP story. "You in effect, have decimated an entire branch of government," he said.

Those are the general arguments about term limits, but the problems will be magnified in Nebraska's one-house Legislature, some would say to the point it will burst into flames.

While lawmakers in other states can run for one house after they have been term-limited out of another, Nebraskans have only one house in which to serve.

But something called "institutional memory" will be the most important loss next year when nearly half of Nebraska's state senators are forced out of office. That represents 239 years of experience, including the current Speaker of the Legislature and nine committee chairs.

If Nebraska is anything like Colorado, which enacted term limits in 1990, lawmakers will spend more time next year reinventing the wheel as they unknowingly pursue proposals that have been tried and rejected in the past, according to Denver lobbyist Diane Rees, as quoted by Scott Bauer of The Associated Press.

During the Depression era of 1937, Sen. George Norris' idea of a non-partisan Unicameral state government was attractive as a more economical means of providing good government. We doubt he intended it to eliminate the legislative leadership that will be sorely needed in the 21st century.

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