Term limits ending scores of legislative careers

Monday, January 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The 2002 elections will be the last hurrah for many Oklahoma lawmakers because of a 1990 constitutional amendment limiting House and Senate members to 12 years of service.

In the 101-member House, 41 incumbents are ineligible to run in 2004, including House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell. In the 48-member Senate, 15 of the 24 senators whose terms are up cannot run again, including Sen. Jim Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, minority leader.

Others who will go out in 2006 include Senate President Pro Tempore Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore.

It will easily be the biggest loss in institutional memory in modern times for the Oklahoma Legislature, and there are sharp differences of opinion on whether it will improve government.

Among those being forced into retirement by the constitutional amendment is Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester, whose legislative career has spanned seven decades, beginning when he was elected to the House in 1948.

Proponents say term limits will bring fresh ideas to bear on old problems, cutting down on cronyism by paring the power of the incumbency.

Opponents say voters have given up an important right to choose whomever they think will do the best job and, in the process, have transferred power to lobbyists and bureaucrats.

``The tale is already wagging the dog up here and it's going to get worse, but it's going to happen,'' said one lobbyist, who did not want to be quoted by name.

Incumbent lawmakers have generally been reluctant to speak out against term limits since polls show they remain immensely popular with voters, perhaps contributing to the fact that bills have been filed this year to expand the term limit concept to statewide officeholders and county officers.

Adair is among those who do not think term limits are a good idea, saying he could not have ascended to speaker last year if he had not worked for the post for 18 years.

Others say term limits are not needed since there already is a 20 percent or more turnover in the Legislature each election cycle.

While lawmakers are not talking publicly about referring the issue to the people for a second vote, a county organization is flirting with the idea of an initiative petition on the subject.

Since the 1990 vote in Oklahoma, 18 states have enacted term limit laws. One plan was recently overturned by a court ruling in Oregon, however.

Oklahoma will soon be going through what Arkansas did in 1998, when half of that state's 100 legislative seats were opened up by term limits.

It's definitely a transfer of power from the legislative branch to the executive branch, says John Henry Ward, executive director of the County Commissioners Association and a foe of term limits.

Ward said his organization is setting up a data base that tells ``both sides of the issue'' and attempts to gauge if public sentiment changes ``when voters have all the facts.''

He said he thinks people might have the wrong idea about how term limits will impact the legislative process.

Bloc voting along party lines, based on decisions in partisan Republican and Democratic caucuses, ``is probably not going to change, regardless of all the term limits in the world,'' Ward said.

Campaign finance reform, not term limits, is the way to ``level the playing field'' and reduce incumbents' power, Ward argues.

Rep. Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City and House minority leader, is a supporter of term limits.

``They will cut down on the influence of long-time legislators and I think that is good,'' Morgan said.

A system of more frequent legislative turnover, he said, ``will accelerate the reform process'' and make lawmakers get things done.

He disagrees that lobbyists will have more power. With term limits, he said, lobbyists will lose influence that is tied to cozy relationships developed over the years with veteran lawmakers.

As far as staff and the bureaucracy gaining more power, Morgan said House and Senate members are supposed to exercise independent judgment.

``If you allow staff to dominate you, of course, you can be dominated, but that is happening now,'' he said.