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Blame game: Term limits aren't cause of Oklahoma Legislature passing bad laws

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: September 9, 2013

HERE we go again: Another assault on one of the most popular political concepts ever to hit the ballot in Oklahoma.

State Rep. Richard Morrissette blames legislative term limits and inexperienced lawmakers for a plethora of laws struck down by the courts. He's wrong, as usual. Law professor Andrew Spiropoulos is right, as usual, in saying term limits aren't the problem. Judicial inconsistency is. Another key factor is ideology, not inexperience.

Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, is a self-appointed burr in the saddle of Republicans who took over the House when the term-limit law took full effect in 2004 (the Senate went Republican four years later). GOP lawmakers have passed a number of bills that have been challenged or struck down by state or federal courts. The reason for this isn't term limits. It's ideology.

Pent-up demand for legislation led to an outpouring of ill-advised bills, particularly concerning reproductive rights. They passed not because of inexperienced legislators but because supporters had the votes. In the case of an anti-Sharia law measure, struck down recently by a federal judge, it was the people — not legislators still wet behind the ears — who enacted the law.

Term-limit law opponents still bemoan the decision voters made in 1990 to limit the terms of lawmakers to 12 years. So popular are term limits here that Oklahoma tried (unsuccessfully) to apply them to members of its congressional delegation. In 2010, voters imposed term limits on all statewide elected officials, a measure that we opposed. If given the chance to limit the terms of the judiciary branch, we have no doubt the people would do so, overwhelmingly.

Despite the clear preference among voters for term limits, Morrissette and others complain about their supposed effects. He says the limit law results in frequent turnover. It also reduces “institutional knowledge,” leading to legislation that can't withstand judicial scrutiny. Yet it's been nearly 10 years since the departure of the last of the lawmakers whose terms were limited by the initial 12-year run. This means many of today's lawmakers have eight or more years of experience.

Morrissette fails to mention that frequent turnover is sometimes aided by the voluntary departure of legislators whose terms haven't expired. Lately, these have mostly been Democrats in powerful positions. In some cases they were frustrated by being members of what appears to be a perpetual minority.

This is exactly the position Republicans were in for most of the time since statehood. Democratic incumbents, led by Senator-for-Life Gene Stipe, were entrenched. Stipe left as a result of a corruption scandal, but most of the other “lions” were forced out by term limits. To be clear, some veteran Republicans didn't like the term-limit law either.

And to make it abundantly clear that the law sometimes results in unfortunate losses, we were sorry to see champions of probity (such as former House Speaker Kris Steele) leave the Legislature. But the law treats all members equally: 12 years and you're out. The time frame isn't optimum (16 years would be better), but the people have spoken.

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by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord...
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