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No state has passed legislative term limits in 22 years. Why has the idea resurfaced in North Dakota?

No state has enacted legislative term limits in more than two decades, but that could change later this year when North Dakotans take to the polls.

The North Dakota House of Representatives meets in the state Capitol on Feb. 11, 2021.
The North Dakota House of Representatives meets in the state Capitol on Feb. 11, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — In the 1990s, term limits were all the rage.

Voters from California to Maine passed citizen-initiated ballot measures limiting how long state legislators could serve. In all, 21 states approved term limits between 1990 and 2000, though legislators or courts in six of those states later repealed them.

As the new century dawned, the concept’s progress within statehouses appeared to halt. No state has enacted legislative term limits in 22 years.

But that could change later this year when North Dakotans take to the polls to vote on a measure that would set an eight-year cap on service by the governor and state lawmakers.

Forum News Service set out to discover what happened to the push for legislative term limits and why the movement has reemerged in the Peace Garden State after it seemingly disappeared from statewide ballots.

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Why here and why now?

For Scott Tillman, the lack of new legislative term limits at the state level can be easily explained by an uneven feature of American democracy.

Only 18 states have a legal process that allows citizens to change their constitutions through ballot measures. North Dakota is among the few without term limits, making it an “outlier,” said Tillman, the national field director at advocacy group U.S. Term Limits.

The only other states that allow constitutional ballot measures but don’t have term limits — Illinois, Mississippi, Oregon and Massachusetts — have seen courts either invalidate term limits initiatives or dismantle the whole initiated measure process.

Since lawmakers are unlikely to self-impose restrictions on the length of their tenure, constitutional measures are by far the best option for term limits proponents, Tillman said.

Jared Hendrix, the chairman of the North Dakota term limits measure, also noted that a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring states from placing term limits on members of Congress may have hindered the movement’s progress.

North Dakota would already be in the term limits club with neighboring South Dakota and Montana if a few thousand votes had swung the other way in 1996. That year, a measure that would have put term limits on state lawmakers and executive officeholders received 47% of the vote, but opponents sank the proposal.

In 2010, a group of term limits backers failed to turn in enough signatures to get a measure on the ballot.

But the concept of term limits has remained nationally popular since the 1990s, and the conditions for mounting a 2022 campaign in North Dakota were right, Hendrix said.

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When asked about the measure’s origin, Hendrix initially said, “It came about somewhat organically just in my mind,” but he clarified minutes later that U.S. Term Limits approached him with the idea.

Hendrix, a conservative political organizer and consultant from Minot, said his time working in politics has convinced him term limits are necessary, and he became willing to lead the measure after representatives from U.S. Term Limits showed him polling to indicate the issue’s strong appeal with voters.

Tillman, a Michigan resident, said his organization has a wide scope and is always looking for people like Hendrix who are interested in running a measure campaign.

U.S. Term Limits has also bankrolled the North Dakota measure, contributing more than $485,000 to the effort over the last two years.

Tillman said his group is not working to promote any other statewide term limits measures this election cycle, but he noted the organization plans to fight a Michigan measure to weaken term limits.

The North Dakota term limits measure is unpopular among state political leaders with the exception of Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who favors the idea.

Top lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, argue term limits in the legislature would push knowledgeable candidates off the ballot and give lobbyists and bureaucrats more influence.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, views the measure as part of a plan by ultra-conservatives to unseat long-serving establishment Republicans. The initiative is backed by several members of the libertarian-leaning Bastiat Caucus, including its founder, state Rep. Rick Becker, who is running for U.S. Senate as an independent.

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Boschee opposes the measure even though he thinks ousting establishment Republicans from the legislature would benefit Democrats electorally.

PHOTO: Jared Hendrix
Conservative political organizer Jared Hendrix speaks during a rally at the North Dakota Capitol on April 5, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Hendrix said term limits would shift power away from powerful lawmakers and lobbyists, who hold unfair advantages in deciding how the state is run. Without term limits, lawmaking bodies become stagnant and imperceptive to new ideas, he said.

Tillman said breaking up lawmaker-lobbyist relationships and spreading power over more decision-makers thwarts corruption.

New candidates on the ballot would also lead to more political engagement in North Dakota, Tillman said

If the measure passes in November, North Dakota would join 15 other states in having term limits on legislators and 36 other states in having term limits on governors.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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