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WOSTER: Term limits redefining service in Legislature

Terry Woster

I read with some surprise the other day a news story that referred to a member of the South Dakota Legislature as a longtime lawmaker and noted that he'd been in office for a dozen years.

I'm not thinking of pulling one of those "I knew Jack Kennedy'' things, but I knew the guy from the news story. I'd been covering the South Dakota Legislature for 30 years by the time the person won his first election.

In my memory, this person remains kind of a newcomer, but a good chunk of my legislative-reporting memory was created before term limits. I realized I needed to rethink my thinking on legislative newcomers and long-timers.

When I began covering the Legislature, members of the House or Senate could serve two-year terms for as long as the residents of their districts continued to give them a majority of the votes.

The result was that some legislators came for just a short time -- a term or two -- and then retired or were retired. Others came for a term and continued to serve for 10, 15, 20 or more years. They were like the Energizer Bunny. They just kept going and going.

Term limits in the early 1990s limited legislators to a maximum of eight consecutive years in one house of the Legislature. Terms limits did not bar lawmakers from serving eight years in one house and then running for a seat in the other house.

I've not done a scientific study of this, but my casual observation is that most lawmakers in the term-limits era chose to step aside after their eight-in-one-house service. A number jumped to the other house. A few jumped back and forth -- eight years here, eight years there, maybe eight years back here.

I've never gotten very excited about term limits one way or the other. The bottom line of legislative service -- of any political service that requires election, really -- is that voters have a chance to apply term limits every time they go to the polls.

Many years ago, a lawmaker who often stopped by the Senate press box to chat before an afternoon floor session explained his election defeat (term limits at the hands of his constituents) this way: "I left the Legislature for health reasons. The voters got sick of me.''

And I knew a legislator who -- he swore this was his true intention -- had made up his mind to retire after his current term. He told me on the last day of a session that he had intended to go home after final adjournment and announce that he would not run again. He told me later that when he got back home, several of his supporters had already taken out petitions for him, had them ready to sign and carry and just needed his approval to crank up the campaign. He could have told them he wasn't running, he said. Instead, he ran again, and won.

On the other hand, after term limits had been in effect for several years, I talked with a number of relatively green lawmakers (those with a couple of years in the Statehouse) about their decisions to run for the House or Senate. Several said the presence of an open seat -- no incumbent because of term limits -- helped sway their decision.

"I wouldn't have challenged an incumbent, so without an open seat, I doubt I would ever have jumped into a campaign,'' they said in so many words.

It used to take several terms before a legislator moved onto the leadership track. The first couple years were "keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.'' George Mickelson becoming speaker of the House in his third term was way unusual in the 1970s. These days, it's almost standard operating procedure.

Good or bad compared with the old days? Different, I guess I'd say.

And, in case the topic is of interest, here's a link to a Legislative Research Council site that shows which lawmakers have served 10 or more years: