As a political scientist I was trained to go to the root of issues, to trace the origins of events to the distant past and to reflect on the quality of government by reference to types of regimes. Frequent elections, conducted from the highest to the lowest level of government, enables public opinion to express itself, correct previous errors or reward elected officials for competent or incorruptible service.
Though there are times in American politics—like today—when popular uprisings occur that aim to throw out the “bums,” for the most part the American electorate—those who register to vote and actually vote in elections—is satisfied to re-elect incumbents. Over time these same incumbents tend to represent special interests, not the public interest, and they remain in office well past normal retirement age.
That is why many states impose “term limits” on service of public executives. Colorado is an example.
Article V, Section 3 of the Constitution of the State of Colorado states as follows:
Section 3. Terms of senators and representatives. (1) Senators shall be elected for the term of four years and representatives for the term of two years.
(2) In order to broaden the opportunities for public service and to assure that the general assembly is representative of Colorado citizens, no senator shall serve more than two consecutive terms in the senate, and no representative shall serve more than four consecutive terms in the house of representatives. This limitation on the number of terms shall apply to terms of office beginning on or after January 1, 1991. Any person appointed or elected to fill a vacancy in the general assembly and who serves at least onehalf of a term of office shall be considered to have served a term in that office for purposes of this subsection (2). Terms are considered consecutive unless they are at least four years apart.
Though Colorado Term Limits serve the purpose of changing the occupants of important seats in the State Legislature, those same Term Limits also have negative consequences.
Let’s begin with the quality of elected state legislators. Why is it that the Colorado State Legislature is laughingly referred to as “stupid”? A more considerate term might be “unskilled.”
Elected bodies that change membership frequently seldom retain the knowledge of past experience. For example, if your memory was erased every eight years, you would, at best, be described as “unskilled.”
Yorktown University’s Gary Wolfram reports that Republicans in the Term Limited state legislature of Michigan crafted legislation intended to bind the spending practices of Michigan’s Democratic Governor. The legislation was crafted imperfectly and, as a result, the spending power of Michigan’s Governor was increased.
Recently, the Minority Leader of the Colorado State Senate,Josh Penry, announced that he would not seek another term of office. After all, service in the legislature requires enormous sacrifices of time, and with Term Limits, those sacrifices will be for naught in a very short period of time.
With Josh Penry and many other worthy legislators departing public service per the terms of Article V, Section 3 of Colorado’s State Constitution, the state legislature loses their knowledge, commitment and leadership. That’s just those who serve. Term Limits deter ambitious politicians to seek election to the State Senate.
But, something else occurs as well.
When legislative and executive service is Term Limited the state bureaucracy grows in power. Power doesn’t evaporate just because elected politicians leave. It moves to more permanent offices. As the repository of regulations, historical knowledge and practices, non-elected public executives play increasingly important roles in Term Limited states. And the numbers of bureaucrats grow.
I encourage readers to click here to access statistics kept by the U.S. Census Bureau on the number of federal, state, and local government civilian employees and their gross payrolls.
You will find that Term Limited states have more public employees per capita than non-Term Limited states.
In other words, citizens will pay, one way or the other, by Term Limiting or not Term Limiting their elected state officials. States that have Term Limits will grow their professional bureaucracies and those that do not have Term Limits will have incumbents who stay too long in office.
Which is worse?
If you consider that elections are the means by which the will of the people is expressed, the empowerment of non-elected public executives is clearly worse.
I’m concerned, frankly, that Term Limits in Colorado block one avenue through which well intentioned politically active citizens can bring their knowledge and skill to serve the public good.
Remember Rick O’Donnell? He served Governor Owens as head of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. He ran for Congress, lost, and now works for an academic institution in Texas.
Remember Marc Holtzman? He served in Governor Owens' Cabinet. Holtzman ran for Governor, lost, and now works for Barclays Bank in London.
Remember former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff? He was term limited, decided to run for Governor and now is seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The State Legislature of Colorado is not an avenue that the politically ambitious travel. They seek to become top officials with Colorado’s Governors and then run for federal office. This “brain drain” is very real because public service in the State Legislature is Term Limited.
The only way to stop this brain drain is to repeal Article V, Section 3, of the Constitution of the State of Colorado and allow men and women of ability and ambition to serve their fellow citizens as members of the State Legislature for as long as they are re-elected.