- Scottsdale Republican Sen. Carolyn Allen is retiring from the Legislature after representing Legislative District 5 for 16 years. Allen, who is one of nine term-limited senators this year, was originally in support of term limits, even helping get the measure that created them in Arizona on the ballot in 1992. Since then, she has changed her stance and is now against them.
Political activists and observers say term limits should be termed out, but average voters seem to like the law just the way it is.
The idea of restricting politicians to a certain number of years in office may have become even more popular in today’s “throw-the-bums-out” atmosphere, despite widespread arguments that mandatory removal of elected officials is replete with unintended consequences.
Approved by Arizona voters in 1992 by a 3-to-1 margin, the term-limit law allows state lawmakers to serve four two-year terms in the same chamber, and limits statewide elected officials to two four-year terms.
It first had a noticeable effect in 2000 when 22 lawmakers — 15 House members and seven senators — were forced out of office. The number of term-limited lawmakers decreased every two years, dropping to six in 2006, but this year, 2 — 13 House members and nine senators — are termed out.
Being termed out doesn’t necessarily end a politician’s legislative career. It has become fairly common for state lawmakers to switch chambers, with outgoing representatives running for the Senate and vice versa.
The tactic usually works seamlessly, but two years ago then-Sen. Robert Blendu agreed to give up his seat, even though he wasn’t termed out, so his colleague in the House, John Nelson, who had served eight years, could run for Blendu’s Senate seat in District 12.
Nelson won handily, but Blendu finished third in the Republican primary, losing to incumbent Jerry Weiers and newcomer Steve Montenegro.
It certainly was an unintended consequence, at least for Blendu, though not the kind that concerns movers and shakers. The most troubling issues are the loss of institutional memory and experience among lawmakers and the perceived shift of influence and power to staff members and lobbyists.
An attempt this year to allow voters to scrap term limits died in the House, even though it appeared to have widespread support. Sponsored by Sen. Carolyn Allen, SCR1007 would have enabled Arizona lawmakers to serve an unlimited number of terms.
Because it seemed highly unlikely that voters were willing to undo what they had done in 1992, the measure, which easily passed out of the Senate, failed to go anywhere in the House.
We talked to eight members of the capitol community to get a pulse on whether term limits are likely here to stay.
An early advocate for term limits, Sen. Carolyn Allen had a change of heart.
“I’ve done a 180,” she says, having sponsored a term-limit repealer that failed to get out of the House earlier this year.
Allen, a Scottsdale Republican who is wrapping up 16 years in the Legislature, was part of a high-powered bipartisan group that put term limits on the ballot in 1992. “In our infinite wisdom, we decided that we needed term limits,” Allen says, even though there were warnings then about the influence that lobbyists and legislative staff would gain.
“So when I go around the state now I’m doing my mea culpa,” Allen says. At one time a national organization was threatening to “come after” lawmakers who try to kill term limits, the senator says. “I don’t worry about threats.”
Allen says the Legislature and the state definitely are not better off because of term limits. Having lived with the system for 16 years, she has seen legislative staffers flex their muscles.
“I saw a staff member talk like he was an elected senator,” Allen says. She singles out Greg Jernigan, Senate general counsel, as having strung out the process on a bill she was pushing. “He knows I was unhappy about that,” Allen says.
Term limits have led to impatience, she says. “People are stepping over bodies to get into leadership,” she says.
Without mentioning names, she notes that at least one member of the House who is running for the Senate because he is termed out of the lower chamber is making a push to immediately become Senate president. (House Majority Leader John McComish and Rep. Steve Yarbrough have expressed an interest in the Senate presidency.) “It gets very vicious behind the scenes, and sometimes in the open,” Allen says.
Allen, who has worked with the O’Connor House Project, says this was not the year to try to repeal term limits, mainly because of the voters’ mood against just about all incumbents. But she expects the issue, championed by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, will be discussed again in the future.
“We just have to step back for awhile,” Allen says.
About her shift from pro to con, Allen says, “I’m willing to listen to both sides. I have worked across the aisle. That’s why some people call me a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Anybody who isn’t willing to change their mind isn’t growing.”
Pollster, Cronkite/Eight Poll
ASU pollster Bruce Merrill recalls a time before term limits when, as director of the political science department program, he would send students to the Legislature to serve as interns. They would come back to him and, in amazement, tell him that state lawmakers weren’t the ones making the decisions.
“It’s the professional staff people who have been there all along,” Merrill says. “They know what the numbers are. They can present the data they want, and the Legislature pretty much follows their recommendations, especially when you have part-time legislators or people who are severely limited in the time they can serve. They don’t have the time to really study the issues to the extent they should.
“I think that has been exacerbated by term limits, which greatly increase the decision-making power of the professional staff.”
What’s more, with term limits it’s difficult to develop leadership that has continuity. “These people are only in office for a short period of time,” Merrill says. “Even for good people, it takes some time to learn leadership skills.”
Some people consider the staff of lawmakers, both state and federal, to be part of “a hidden decision-making group,” Merrill says.
Contrary to what others think, Merrill doubts that term limits help or hurt lobbyists. “They still have to get the information from their clients to a legislator or to the professional staff,” Merrill says. “Most of them lobby the professional staff anyway. Lobbyists work within the system, whatever it is. I haven’t seen that term limits make much of a difference.”
Merrill says it’s easy for voters to favor term limits because of the negative image elected officials have. The public feels that anything that limits the amount of time elected officials can remain in office is a good thing, he says. That being said, repeal of term limits is highly unlikely.
“I prefer not to have term limits at all,” Merrill says, noting that Arizona legislators face the voters every two years. That, in itself, is a term-limiting factor.
But Merrill says two-year terms are “preposterous.” He’d like to modify them, to perhaps two four-year terms. “With two-year terms, they’re running for office the day after they’re elected,” he says.
Owner, The Aarons Company
Barry Aarons, a long-time lobbyist with the Aarons Company, declines to characterize the impact of term limits on the state as good or bad, but questions whether the system is working the way it was intended.
“Instead of serving eight years and going back to the farm, they’re going over to the other house — back and forth like a ping-pong ball,” Aarons says. “I’m not sure that was by design or oversight. And I’m not sure the full effect and benefits of term limits have been felt. There definitely has been to some extent a loss of institutional memory and institutional ability.”
Aarons, who was a key adviser in the Fife Symington administration, acknowledges that the process has increased the importance of lobbyists. “Some of us veterans might be almost the only ones left with institutional memory,” he says. “What we bring to the table — knowledge and background — has been increased. But it has also made us work harder to try to get to know new members.”
Aarons says he conducted a record 84 interviews with legislators and candidates since May.
“I don’t want the first time I ever meet these folks to be in January and ask them to support or propose a piece of legislation,” Aarons says. “Term limits have made us more cognizant of all the different candidates and new legislators and that we need to ramp up the knowledge of them and the relationship with them and develop trust a lot sooner than we did 30 years ago.”
A benefit of term limits has been that legislative seats open up and some new people run and win who probably would not have run in the past because of incumbents who had what he calls “institutional membership.”
Aarons says ballot measures, including term limits, should have a sunset provision and be subject to another vote of the people in perhaps 10 years to “see if the public thinks it’s still important.” He also questions whether two-year terms are “the way to go,” and whether membership in the Legislature should be increased to properly address population growth.
“Other fundamental discussions probably need to take place,” he says. “Just looking at term limits might be one of those things where you’re curing the symptoms without looking at the underlying causes.”
Tax Research Association
Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, has seen the patience level of incoming legislators change with the advent of term limits compared to 15-20 years ago.
“There is recognition from the outset what their time period is,” McCarthy says. “They have a tendency to want to move at a more rapid pace and speed their ascendancy up the ladder to become a chairman or get into leadership. A lot of people think that’s not such a bad thing on the surface, but it is in terms of being patient, trying to learn the issues, taking the time to become an expert of their issue — state or local taxes, the environment, water or whatever.”
Yet, McCarthy isn’t so sure that term limits have given lobbyists more influence. He heard the arguments that before term limits, “lobbyists were running the place because they had built these long-term relationships with legislators and staff.” Turnover was needed, term-limit advocates argued, to curb the influence of lobbyists.
“I don’t know that’s true at all,” McCarthy says, “because when you have more turnover and there is less historical memory, a counter-argument could be made that lobbyists have more control in that environment.”
As a lobbyist himself, McCarthy says, “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and someone could make the argument that if they keep turning over all of the bodies, nobody will have a lot of expertise in taxation, and that McCarthy is going to have more influence. That’s arguably true, but with new people coming in every year, I don’t have the relationship with them. I have to introduce myself, climb back up that hill and educate them on the issues I think they ought to be looking at.”
The beneficiaries of term limits, McCarthy says, are “the folks who want to access the process in terms of running for office.”
Regarding possible repeal, McCarthy says, “If voters don’t understand what some of the unintended consequences have been, they would be very reluctant to repeal that. In aggregate, I would give term limits a net minus, but I don’t attribute every ill that we have to term limits. They’re not responsible for 110 degrees in July.”
Partner, FirstStrategic Communications & Public Affairs
Barry Dill, a lobbyist with FirstStrategic Communications & Public Affairs, gets right to the point.
“Term limits have been a disaster for the state because the end result has been that people are getting elected to office who aren’t really qualified,” says Dill, who leans toward Democratic causes. “The quality of the overall performance of the state Legislature has deteriorated during the past two decades.”
Term limits gets some of the blame. “When you remove experienced legislators you remove institutional knowledge,” Dill says. “So what is left? Who has the institutional knowledge of the way the process works? You end up with lobbyists and you end up with staff, neither of whom is elected. Elected officials should be in charge, but ultimately they aren’t.”
Dill concedes that the effect on lobbying has made his job easier. “I’m not sure that’s always a good thing,” he says. “Maybe it’s not. It’s easier because as new members who are inexperienced come in they basically rely on staff and lobbyists who educate them on the process. So instead of someone doing an advocacy role, it almost puts lobbyists in a teaching, educational role. So for our profession it’s great. But, I’m not sure it serves the public in the best way.”
Other than lobbyists and staff members, the only beneficiaries might be a few candidates who “accidentally win” because an incumbent was forced out, Dill says.
He absolutely doesn’t see a need for a term-limits law. “I believe we have term-outs,” Dill says. “They take place every two years — elections. If more of our citizens were to take a more active role in our democracy, we would have a higher rate of turnover of incumbents than we do now. But by forcing incumbents to leave early, in my opinion, forces the process into a direction where the direct participation of the public isn’t always necessary. Therefore term-outs remain low and people’s interest in their government remains low — until things get really bad.”
Dill doesn’t expect a repeal of term limits any time soon. “That is unfortunate,” he says. “Over time, the arch conservatives have convinced the public that term limits have some impact in getting incumbents out of office, and they’re right. It has, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.”
Government Relations Specialist, Gallagher & Kennedy
Deb Gullett, a lobbyist for reforms recommended by the O’Connor House Project — convened and led by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — says doing away with term limits was favored by 86 percent of the business, community and political leaders who participated in the project. They see ending term limits as a way to improve state government.
The trouble is the general public doesn’t see it that way.
Speaking for Government for Arizona’s 2nd Century — the organization established to advance the O’Connor House Project’s recommendations — Gullett says a statewide survey was commissioned to test the public mood. Only 10 percent thought that getting rid of term limits was a good idea, while nearly 60 percent said it was among the least popular ideas.
“That’s not a groundswell of support,” says Gullett, a former state lawmaker and currently a government-relations specialist at Gallagher and Kennedy. “The (O’Connor House Project) participants felt term limits were responsible for a transfer of power from legislators to lobbyists and staff, a loss of institutional memory, and a lack of working knowledge of the legislative process, procedures and rules. Our position was that term limits prevent good people from serving longer.”
The group supported Sen. Carolyn Allen’s SCR 1007, which would have put the term-limit repeal on the November ballot, but after passing out of the Senate it never surfaced in the House.
“We wanted to get the conversation started about whether it was time to re-evaluate the idea of term limits,” Gullett says. “From our survey data we knew the time was probably not ripe with the voters of Arizona, but we started the conversation. The bill generated quite a bit of publicity, two hearings and a full debate in the Senate — and we were happy to have initiated the discussion about the merits of this reform idea.
“In this current throw-the-bums-out climate,” Gullett says, “anything that allows the bums to stay in office longer is not something that really has resonance with the voters. My sense is that voters want to empower themselves. They oppose anything that takes away their authority — and in the view of the pollster — repealing term limits would take away the authority of the voters, something they had passed.”
President, DeMenna & Associates
Kevin DeMenna of DeMenna & Associates agrees with others that term limits have empowered lobbyists and staff “in that order,” especially lobbyists like himself who have been trolling the legislative halls for many years and who bring their institutional knowledge to the table.
“Term limits have virtually destroyed any institutional knowledge or long-term ability for legislators to truly control policy,” DeMenna says. “It is one of the biggest mistakes made in Arizona. It may be the biggest political mistake Arizona ever made.”
While acknowledging that term limits helps him, DeMenna says he doesn’t need that kind of assistance. “It ought to be abolished as soon as possible,” he says. “I prefer to deal with legislators who have an institutional memory than those who don’t.”
DeMenna considers repealing term limits a personal crusade of his. As an example of why the law should go, he suggests having to fire your best employee at the end of his eighth year on the job. “This demonstrates the common-sense aspect of why you ought to be able to keep someone, rather than having them tossed out without any recourse,” DeMenna says.
He has no problem with term-limited lawmakers jumping from the House to the Senate and vice versa, but says the practice has led to a couple of what might be considered unintended consequences. Most who switch chambers do so because they want to continue serving the public. But some lawmakers, who perhaps have never had a better job, want to remain in office to pad their pensions, DeMenna says.
Another issue triggered by term limits involves the pending race for Senate president, with at least two current House members — Majority Leader John McComish and Rep. Steve Yarbrough — eying the post. “I’ve heard some in the Senate say only someone with Senate experience should be eligible to stand for president,” DeMenna says. “There is really no substantive difference between the House and the Senate. Term limits are being used as a political lever.”
Because Arizona is so focused on immigration and budget problems, term limits has, in effect, become an institutional part of the process. “It has become self-perpetuating,” DeMenna says. “Remember when they did budgets in public, when sunshine was part of the process? There is no one in the Legislature with enough institutional memory to remember what it was like before term limits.”
President & CEO, Behavior Research Center
Jim Haynes, president of Behavior Research Center, minces no words.
“I’m one of those oddballs who think that term limits have not been a good thing,” he says. “First of all, I fundamentally believe we already had term limits — it’s called elections. If people didn’t want somebody to remain in office, all they had to do was vote them out. What artificial term limits — which is what I call them — have done is basically eliminate any kind of institutional memory.”
Haynes harkens back to when the Legislature was more benevolent, basically run by a bipartisan group of leaders such as Burton Barr, Art Hamilton and Alfredo Gutierrez. “Those guys bickered over details of individual bills, but basically they were coming at it from a standpoint of public service, I thought,” Haynes says. “They didn’t feel like they had to make a name for themselves in the first two years.”
It’s logical to assume that people who are in office for two, four or six years lack institutional memory, institutional history, he says. “And it’s fair to say that the role of lobbyists and the value of lobbyists have increased rather than decreased,” Haynes says. “The same can be said about the role and importance of staff.”
Who are the winners and losers?
“People looking for good, stable solid government are probably the ones who get hurt,” he says. “People running specific agendas, especially at the margin, are more likely to benefit. Since the advent of term limits, the tendency has been toward more partisanship, and in some cases toward the extremes in terms of both party leaderships.”
The mood against incumbents is extremely negative, as evidenced by the 20 to 25 e-mails Haynes receives each month with this message: “Throw them all out. People don’t even ask what party the politicians are in.”
Term limits are not the rational way to deal with elected public officials, Haynes says. Yet, repeal is not going to happen.
“No, I don’t see doing away with term limits in Arizona,” Haynes says. “What I mostly hear is people saying we’ve got to figure out a way to make it happen in D.C. Whoever takes on that battle, they’ve got a helluva lot more time than I do.”