Oregon leads move to end term limits

Lobbyists too influential, experienced leaders lost, reversal's supporters say

May 21, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SALEM, Ore. - Oregon, which has been in the forefront of many national trends, was among the first of 19 states that jumped on the term-limits bandwagon.

But now Oregonians are contemplating a possible countermovement: This year, they are likely to vote on whether to become the first state to loosen or repeal the time limits voters once imposed on state legislators' terms.

With 13 of Oregon's 30 state senators prevented by the term-limits law from running for re-election next year, the state Senate has passed a measure that would ask voters on the November's ballot whether to abolish the law. The House is debating that bill and has approved a separate measure to ask voters whether to loosen the limits.

While Oregon's lawmakers seem to be further along in trying to undo term limits than other states', they are hardly alone.

In at least 10 of the 19 states with term limits, legislatures are considering proposals to modify or repeal the laws. Some of those proposals, including one in Missouri, are pending, while others are stalled, in part because of vigorous lobbying by the groups that promoted the term-limits laws.

The term-limits movement gained strength in the late 1980s amid the public's frustration with career politicians. But in Oregon, where there have been five House speakers in the past five legislative sessions, many lawmakers, including some newly elected ones who arguably owe their jobs to the existence of term limits, are surprisingly frank in explaining why they oppose the laws.

"I think regular people would be alarmed if they really knew how much influence lobbyists now have over this system," said state Rep. Mark Hass, a suburban Portland Democrat and a freshman.

"When you need advice," Hass said, "it would be nice to be able to turn to a legislator with 20 years' experience, someone who could take a new guy like me under his or her wing and say, `We tried that back in '73, and it didn't work.' There aren't any legislative elders anymore. There's a lot of reinventing the wheel."

In Maine, where a referendum limiting state lawmakers to no more than four consecutive two-year terms was approved in 1993, many legislators have been openly questioning the effect of the law.

"If term limits get rid of the dead wood, the problem is they get rid of the live wood too," said Augusta Democratic Sen. Beverly Daggett, her party's leader.

Whether voters will warm to the idea of undoing term limits is a different matter. Several experts said that while the once red-hot ardor in favor of term limits had clearly waned in recent years, that did not necessarily mean people were in favor of repealing them.

And legislative efforts to roll back term limits at both the city and state level have almost all failed, perhaps most notably in New York City, where a City Council committee decided 5-4 in March to kill a bill that would have overturned their term limits. Those limits were approved by voters in 1993 and reaffirmed in a 1996 ballot measure.

Still, some term-limits laws, including those in Massachusetts and Washington state, have been thrown out by state courts.

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