THE BULLY PULPIT | Term Limits – A Failed Experiment

By Art Goodtimes | San Miguel County

San Miguel County citizens Brian Ahern and Matt Stott have been circulating a petiton to get a new measure on the county ballot this next election to limit county commissioners’ terms.

There are lots of arguments on both sides of this issue. And it will be the citizens’ job to weigh those arguments if the matter comes before voters this November.

From the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s to the Republican Contract with America reform movement in the 1990s, there have been various attempts to limit or weaken federal powers and devolve more powers back to the states. Term limits have been essential to that strategy.

Libertarian deep pockets – from the Koch Brothers to New York real estate mogul Howard Rich – were among the first to bankroll a national term limits group. Based out of Florida but headquartered in Washington, D.C. alongside conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, this group coalesced as U.S. Term Limits and released papers calling for term limits in Congress and throughout state and local governments.

As the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized about Rich, who still heads up the US Term Limits organization, “[He] makes no secret of his desire to rein in the power of government.”

The funders behind US Term Limits bankrolled a wave of popular “citizen initiatives” proposing term limit legislation across the country.

Colorado was one of three states to pass such legislation in 1990. Colorado Term Limits (Initiative 5) passed overwhelmingly as a constitutional amendment with 71 percent of the vote. The governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and all members of the Colorado state legislature were limited to two consecutive terms.

Colorado went even further in 1994, narrowly passing Amendment 17 and putting the Colorado Term Limits Amendment into the state constitution. San Miguel County citizens voted almost two to one against the proposal.

That year Colorado was one of five states to limit all levels of government – local, city, school boards, special districts – to two terms. However, there was an escape mechanism. Any government entity could vote to change or eliminate the restriction. 

By the mid-’90s, 20 other states had adopted term limits. In four of these states (Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming), the state supreme courts threw them out. Legislatures in Idaho and Utah later repealed them, leaving only 15 states with term limits for their legislators.

The movement hit a significant roadblock when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state requirements that federal representatives and senators be limited to two consecutive terms, in US Term Limits v. Thornton (1995), ruling that state limitations on terms could not be stricter than the U.S. Constitution.

In 1996 Colorado joined several states in calling for the adoption of a constitutional amendment mandating term limits for federally elected officials, and holding a Constitutional Convention, if need be, to make it so. In spite of support from Colorado’s conservative Independence Institute, neither avenue was seriously pursued.

In 1997, 63 percent of San Miguel County voters rejected term limits for local elected officials.

In 1998, Colorado Voluntary Congressional Term Limits Initiative 18 was narrowly approved by a margin of 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent. It amended the Colorado Constitution to create a system for candidates to submit declarations of voluntary term limits.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, no new states have adopted term limits since 2000.

Clearly citizens have experienced term limit fatigue. And a backlash.

I was a term-limits believer for many years, but no more,” wrote Editorial Page Editor Dan Haley of the Denver Post in 2008. “It may have sounded good in theory, but in practice the idea has failed.” Haley cited Tom Tancredo who campaigned for term limits in 1998 and voluntarily pledged to only serve only three two-year terms. He retired in 2008 after five terms.

Haley also noted that Bob Shaffer signed the pledge in 1996. But he was marginalized in D.C. because he was only serving a short stint. “You couldn’t even think about being a subcommittee chair until you were into your fourth term,” Shaffer told the Post. While Shaffer didn’t regret signing the pledge, he told Haley he “wouldn’t do it again.”

As Denver attorney and former Republican U.C. Board of Regents member Jim Martin wrote in the Colorado Statesman in 2009, “In the ‘80s, something troubling happened to American democracy. Politicians convinced us that ‘government isn’t the solution; government is the problem,’ – an all-too-conventional wisdom that has had devastating consequences for effective government at all levels in the intervening 20 years. One of the worst of these consequences is term limits.”

Martin insists we can’t simplify the issue of political involvement by setting artificial limits on officials. Citizens need to be personally involved, and hold their public servants accountable – because on the local government level, we’re talking about our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens.

Term limits are anti-democratic, senseless, lazy and counterproductive measures that weaken the source of our most vital power – the power to create accountability by the force of public opinion, community activism and a marvelous little invention known as the ballot box,” he concluded.

Haley reached a similar conclusion. “Term limits may have allowed a few more citizens to serve the people, but it hasn’t made our government more efficient or effective. If anything, it’s caused more wheel-spinning, especially with turnover in leadership positions,” Haley noted, citing a 2006 study by three non-partisan organizations which found that state houses with term limits were actually growing less diverse.

In theory, citizen legislatures stymie the proliferation of career politicians. But particularly at the local level, where our fellow citizens are the candidates we elect to office, people we know personally and see regularly at the post office or the market, longevity in office leads to more effective and responsive government.

Currently, as San Miguel County’s District 3 Commissioner I’m in my fifth four-year term, having first been elected in 1996. Commissioner Elaine Fischer is in her fourth term, and Commissioner Joan May was just re-elected to a third term.

Unsurprisingly, San Miguel County’s sitting commissioners are not term limit supporters.

As Commissioner May wrote on her online election site in 2014, “If one of the goals of term limits is a more responsive Board of Commissioners (BOCC), the result of term limits will be just the opposite…. If each commissioner runs once for re-election and wins, then 50 percent of the time the majority (two out of three) of the BOCC will be lame ducks serving their final four-year terms unconstrained by voter sentiment. This is certainly not a good recipe for responsive government.”

Colorado was a pioneer in the term limit movement’s attempt to place limitations on government. Now that we’ve seen its effect on other jurisdictions, I’m hoping San Miguel County residents will reject it for the failed experiment it is. But that, voters, is up to you.

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About the Author

Art Goodtimes

Goodtimes was first elected to the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners in 1996 as a Democrat. He switched to the Green Party of Colorado in 1998 and was re-elected in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. He is a noted poet and writer of several books and the poet laureate of the Telluride Mushroom Festival. He grew up in California and graduated from San Francisco State University in 1970. He is also co-chair of the Green Party of Colorado