Placing limits on the length of time lawmakers can serve is arguably the most significant institutional change to state legislatures in the last half century.
At the time term limits were first enacted by voters in 1990, the number of Americans who said they trusted the government (lumping Congress and state legislatures together) to do the right thing dipped as low as 25% in some polls, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Proponents argue that “term limits offer the opportunity to elect new people with fresh ideas, which is always better than the old establishment,” says Arizona Senator Kelly Townsend (R). Although she says there are pros and cons to state-level term limits, she comes down on the pro side. “We want a citizen legislature, and term limits help us achieve that.”
We want a citizen legislature, and term limits help us achieve that. —Arizona Senator Kelly Townsend
Others say the practice can lead to a lack of preparation for those leading chambers or important committees.
“Term-limited legislators don’t have the luxury of spending four to six years learning how to chair a committee,” says Doug Kristensen (R), a former Nebraska Senate speaker.
Term limits have historically had strong bipartisan support among voters. According to a 2018 survey conducted by McLaughlin & Associates, most of the respondents—89% of the Republicans and 76% of the Democrats—“strongly agreed or somewhat agreed” that there should be term limits on U.S senators and representatives.
In a flurry of activity between 1990 and 2000, 21 states enacted state legislative term limits, almost all through voter initiatives driven by U.S. Term Limits or other national organizations promoting the idea. The first initiatives to pass were in California, Colorado and Oklahoma.
Six of the 21 states, however, subsequently repealed their limits, either by court challenges (in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming) or by legislative action (in Idaho and Utah).
The remaining laws vary considerably in the duration of terms they set, whether they apply to one legislative chamber or both, and whether members may serve in the legislature again.
Soon after term-limit laws began taking effect in the early 2000s, NCSL led a national study by leading political scientists of their influence on legislatures. The study found the laws resulted in a significant increase in turnover rates in term-limited legislatures compared both with pre-term-limit levels in the same states and with states without term limits. Turnover rates were 14% higher, on average, in houses of representatives with term limits than in house chambers in states with no limits.
High turnover itself is not necessarily a problem. In fact, high turnover historically is common in many of the term-limited legislatures.
Patrick O’Donnell, longtime clerk of the Nebraska Senate, says that before term limits, the average senator’s tenure was eight and a half years in his state, about the same as the maximum term now allowed. But among the new members before term limits were always some 15- to 20-year veterans who tended to hold the important leadership posts, including committee chairmanships.
The NCSL study showed conclusively that the absence in term-limited legislatures of experienced legislators, especially leaders and key committee chairs, with knowledge of policy issues and legislative procedure weakens the power of the legislative branch in relation to governors.
Most governors are also term limited, but they have far greater resources available to them than legislators do. “Governors can draw on the expertise of thousands of career civil servants, as well as their own political appointees, to drive their policy agenda,” University of California San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser says.
“With much smaller staff resources, legislators have to rely for expertise on the collective knowledge of their members and their division of labor among legislative committees,” he says. “Reducing lawmakers’ experience levels through term limits diminishes their knowledge and expertise and puts them at a disadvantage vis-a-vis governors in espousing public policy proposals or negotiating budgets.”
Reducing lawmakers’ experience levels through term limits diminishes their knowledge and expertise and puts them at a disadvantage vis-a-vis governors. —University of California San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser
Other effects researchers have identified in term-limited legislatures include less attention given to constituent service and a weakening of the gatekeeping and deliberative roles of committees. The longer committee members serve, the more time they have to learn both substance and procedure and to develop working relationships.
Restricting the length of incumbents’ service has not, however, significantly changed legislative demographics. The results of studies vary, but women and minorities show no greater gains in numbers due to term limits in the states that have them.
Nick Tomboulides, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, has a different take. “None of the doom-and-gloom predictions about term limits in state legislatures have come to pass,” he says. “There is no evidence that states run by professional politicians are any better off than states with term limits.”
Stricter Limits, Greater Change
The variations in term-limit laws have had consequences for legislators and legislatures alike. More restrictive limits, such as Michigan’s lifetime cap of six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, tend to produce more dramatic results than less restrictive limits.
More generous limits, such as the 12-year caps for both chambers in Louisiana and Nevada, are unlikely to constrain the ambitions of most legislators. Few in those states served more than 24 years before limits, so the relatively loose caps have had less impact than stricter limits in other states.
Nebraska’s single-chamber legislature has one of the strictest limits: two four-year terms. Senators may run again if they sit out at least four years, but only five have done so. “It’s hard to sit out for four years and come back. It’s a huge commitment for a salary of $12,000 a year,” Kristensen, the former Senate speaker, says. “The sacrifice is great, and family and business considerations prevent people from coming back.”
Bill Ballenger, a former Michigan lawmaker who writes “The Ballenger Report,” a political newsletter, argues that the Wolverine State has the most draconian limits of all—six years in the House and eight in the Senate with a lifetime ban on serving again. Arkansas and California originally had the same limits.
In these three states, members tended to enter the legislature by running for the House. If they wanted to continue their careers, they’d run for the senate as soon as a seat opened up. Because about nine of 10 senators had served in the house, the senate became the repository of experience.
With only six years to serve in the house, some speakers and committee chairs had little legislative experience and short tenures in all three states. Those aspiring to be speaker would begin gathering support during their first terms, hoping to assume the post in their third two-year term. In the 22 years since limits took effect with the 1998 election, Michigan has had nine House speakers. Their average experience at the time they became presiding officer has been not quite three and a half years, and their tenure in the position has averaged two and a half years.
In all three states, the result was an imbalance in power and influence between the chambers. “Our House of Representatives was an inferior body compared to the Senate,” former Arkansas Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R) says.
Two Loosen Limits
In the early 2000s, there were several attempts to modify or repeal term limits, but those efforts have since diminished, with exceptions in California and Arkansas.
In 2012, California voters approved an initiative to reduce the total number of years a legislator could serve from 14 to 12 years but eliminated the chamber limits of six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
Through a measure referred to the voters by the legislature in 2012, Arkansas also eliminated chamber limits and expanded the limit on total years of service to 16. Although both states initially retained lifetime bans on returning to the legislature, Arkansas voters eliminated the prohibition last November.
By all accounts, the switch from chamber-specific restrictions to limits on total years of service has helped balance power between chambers in both states. The rate of movement from house to senate in both states has declined as members who want to develop policy or political influence have focused on building a career in one chamber. Arkansas has had two two-term speakers since the change in the law, and several key House committee chairs are in their third terms.
California Speaker Anthony Rendon (D), first elected to the Assembly in 2012, is in his fifth year as presiding officer and could remain in the position until 2024.
Gillam, who was Arkansas’ speaker for four years immediately after that state’s limits were relaxed, says members can now “play the long game” on policy issues. “The result is improved legislation—never perfect, but better.”
Kousser, the UCSD professor, sees a similar pattern in California. Once members win a seat, they don’t worry so much about jumping to the next available office. Subject matter experts in the Assembly now can work on issues over several years. “These policy cardinals,” as Kousser calls them, “are taking bigger swings and pushing the envelope on issues that take a long time to develop and negotiate.”
Former California Speaker Robert Hertzberg (D) sees things a little differently now as Senate majority leader. “The 2012 change in the term limits law has been negative for the Senate,” he says, citing an increase in the number of senators who have not served in the Assembly and often not in government at all. Experience, personality and leadership skills matter more than systemic factors like term limits, he argues.
Adapting to Limits
Legislatures have found ways to minimize the potentially negative effects of term limit laws. Some have responded with more training. Hertzberg, for example, helped start a program for new legislators and staff known as the CAPITOL Institute (California Assembly Program for Innovative Training and Orientation for the Legislature). Other states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri and Ohio, have beefed up existing orientation programs.
A few legislatures now have “apprentice” programs, allowing newer members to serve as committee vice chairs with the expectation they will become chairs in future sessions. Others have begun electing or designating future presiding officers one or two years in advance to give them time to prepare for their leadership roles.
Thirty years on, term limits in 15 states are mostly settled law. The 35 states without them seem unlikely to change course—for legislators, at least—either because they’ve tried the laws without success or because their constitutions do not allow for voter initiatives.
Karl Kurtz retired from NCSL in 2014. He is now principal of the consulting firm LegisMatters.