By Helen Brewer
Twenty states have introduced 45 bills pertaining to state legislator term limits in the 2019 legislative sessions.
Thirteen states attempted to institute legislative term limits for the first time—15 states currently impose term limits on legislators.
- The New York Legislature led the pack, introducing 12 bills attempting to implement term limits. Three of these were campaign finance reform bills that included one-line provisions about term limits.
- The South Carolina General Assembly introduced the second-highest number of term limit bills (five), followed by Arkansas with four bills.
- Oklahoma legislators introduced a bill attempting to increase the total amount of years a person can serve in the legislature from 12 to 20.
- Missouri legislators introduced a bill that would allow a legislator to exceed the 16-year limit on service in the legislature if the legislator were elected as a write-in candidate without “mak(ing) any campaign expenditures” in support of the write-in candidacy.
However, none of these bills were passed into law.
In fact, Arkansas was the only state to pass term limit legislation this session.
In the 2020 election, Arkansas voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to restrict legislators to 12 consecutive years of service in the General Assembly. Legislators elected before 2021 will remain restricted to 16 total years of service, whether consecutive or not.
If the amendment passes, a legislator who reaches the 12-consecutive or 16-total year maximum will not be eligible for reelection until four years after the legislator’s last term in office.
Legislative term limits can provoke controversy.
Debate in Michigan recently escalated after Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (pictured above) announced he would push to eliminate legislative term limits through a ballot initiative in 2021. Michigan legislators are currently limited to three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate.
Some term limit supporters suggested Michigan voters would never embrace this effort and would vote to keep term limits on the belief that they prevent career politicians from garnering too much power. Others, such as Shirkey, believe restrictive term limits inhibit legislators’ ability to become well-informed on issues that matter to their constituents before they vote on complex legislation.
A House version of Arkansas’ proposed constitutional amendment reflected these concerns. Findings attached to the bill stated that, although term limits play an important role in state government, their importance must be weighed against the need for a longer-serving and therefore more experienced legislature. The bill reserved for the General Assembly the power to change legislative term limits, warning the legislative branch could be weakened if special interest groups initiate “frequent changes” to term limits.
Although unrelated to state legislator term limits, in 2019 six states introduced resolutions asking the U.S. Congress to hold a constitutional convention to consider an amendment imposing term limits on U.S. senators and representatives. None of these resolutions passed. For a constitutional convention addressing congressional term limits to be held, 34 state legislatures would have to call for one.
Helen Brewer is an intern in NCSL's Center for Legislative Strengthening.