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Term limits successful on accountability, thus policy

As Louisiana voters face a second cycle of legislative elections impacted by term limitation, one former candidate for its House of Representatives laments the belief that its imposition has meant nothing in terms of public policy. That hasty judgment neither appreciates the effort to get there nor what has happened since.

Ryan Gatti terms his anticipation of their imposition as creating an environment where “no one person could garner too much power and to ensure new blood and new ideas would be just over a decade away. This was going to transform the Legislature because there would be no more 20- to 30-year dynasties, and special interests would lose their stranglehold on the capital.” Yet, he writes it “was just a sham. The law technically allows one person to serve for up to 24 years,” and that “our 1995 uprising was really just a ploy to get us to vote.”

Actually, Gatti is incorrect on the constitutional amendment’s specifics.
There is no such “24-year” limitation. An otherwise eligible person may serve an unlimited number of years, so long as he does not serve more than two and one-half terms in three consecutive terms in one particular chamber. He may be more accurate in describing some people’s feelings about it as, despite the fact of the clear ballot wording, there were those in 1995 who thought they were voting for a consecutive three-term limit in any Legislative office, not just in a particular chamber.

One must remember that this wording adopted perhaps maximized any limits at all. Louisiana has the distinction of being the only state whose own legislature imposed limits on itself, unlike other states that had them go through by means independent of their legislatures such as by the initiative process that Louisiana lacks. Yet that choice does not turn out to be as defective as it first seems, for even these modified limits have shown they challenge incumbents that do not face limitation, such as previous holders running for a return their seats after sitting out or encouraging a term-limited lawmaker in one chamber to challenge a legislator in the other.

And while Gatti argues that limitation has rendered no real policy change, using the state’s escalating budget as evidence, that proves unconvincing because it involves no experimentation in testing that assertion. Who’s to say the budget would not have gone up three times in 16 years instead of twice without limitation or, for that matter, it may only have gone up half as much? And the fact is, numerous legislators were retired by term limits; perhaps some meant to leave after three terms in a chamber, but others no doubt did not and a few we know for sure would not have since they tried, and failed, to win election in the other chamber. Thus, at least some of the advantages Gatti claimed for terms limits were realized if we accept the benefits he claims that should lie behind the theory.

If nothing else, term limits disallow accrual of an advantage that favors incumbents in elections. This makes lawmakers more accountable in that the wishes of constituents become magnified in their present office, and if they then wish to take their act to the other chamber. As such, surely policy has hewed accordingly and thus the modified limits in place in Louisiana have proven successful.

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