OPINION

Term limits question citizen competence

Lloyd Omdahl
Local Columnist

A committee of petitioners is proposing a constitutional amendment that would limit future North Dakota legislators to eight years of service. 

The proposal would “grandfather” in all legislators now serving, meaning that all of the alleged evils of the present body would be preserved over the next 30 years.

Because the Republicans have overwhelming majorities in both houses, they would eventually suffer the greatest impact of term limits. Since one-party states are always on the verge of fragmentation, there would be more primary fights over legislative seats that would pit Republicans against Republicans.

Conservative Hopes

Perhaps it is the hope of the petitioners that present legislators would be replaced by new members whose ideology would be more to the right. There are a number of national ideology groups ready to push more conservative policy through state legislatures.

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f this measure gets on the ballot in 2022, campaigns in other states suggest that it would pass handily.  Of the 15 states that have term limits, the “yes” vote averaged around 65 percent. A landslide in any election.

In the absence of a valid public opinion poll, we can only guess why the public is so eager to adopt term limits.

Guess one, there is a latent suspicion of political institutions and their participants. In other words, the distrust of politicians is rampant and very often without logic.

Suspicious Citizenry      

Most people don’t accept the role of politicians as accommodators, peacemakers or negotiators because they think the political decisions (deals) are going to negatively affect them. But policymaking is all about accommodation.

A proposal for term limits presents voters with an opportunity to strike a telling blow at government and the “crooks” that run it.  If there is real wrongdoing in the legislature, we have an Ethics Commission but it has been silent since its inception four years ago.

Six other states had term limits. Two legislatures repealed term limits which could be done because they were statutory rather than constitutional. The ND proposal would be constitutional which is important because the supreme courts of the other four repealing states ruled that legislatures could not impose new qualifications for legislators with ordinary statutes.

Conference Committees

The campaign over term limits will consist of subjective claims that cannot be proven. First question: if legislators become corrupt if kept in office for decades, specify a definition of corrupt.  Probably the biggest evil in the legislative process is the conference committee in which three from each house sit down and negotiate the differences between the two houses without getting citizen input on their conclusion. But that isn’t corruption per se.

A one-house legislature would end this dangerous predicament more effectively than term limits.

Dismissing the corrupt charge, it is likely true that legislators over the years develop cozy relations with long term lobbyists and agency heads.  Even though these should be suspect, a working relationship with lobbyists and state officials smoothen the development of public policy.  It may be thin ice but someone must skate across the pond.

Questioning Democracy

But there is something more basic in the consideration of limiting the terms of legislators. By limiting terms, the citizens are telling themselves that democracy in North Dakota has a serious defect: the voters need to be protected from their own inability to make intelligent decisions in the election and re-election of legislators.

Since North Dakota has one of the largest per capita legislatures, legislators are closer to the people here more than in other states. This is not as true at the state level where we elect more state officials than any other state, except South Carolina.  The duties and qualifications of state officials are largely unknown to voters.

So is there enough citizen competence in North Dakota to run a democracy?  The voters will decide.