Former Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry once wrote that on a road trip, he entered South Dakota. He declared it “a dirt-intensive state so sparsely populated that merely by entering it you automatically become a member of the Legislature.”
In a way, Barry isn’t too far off. South Dakota is sparsely populated, and it’s a state that has term limits on its state lawmakers. That means after eight years, lawmakers must step away from office and let someone else take their turn. In a state with few people, it seems like everyone gets their chance.
Still, the process has advantages, and one specifically: new people come into office with new ideas.
A proposal is circulating through North Dakota that, if voters approve, would cap the terms of the governor and state lawmakers at eight years. The idea would allow current lawmakers to remain in service up to eight years from the time the new rule would, conceivably, be enacted. Like in South Dakota, lawmakers could switch houses every eight years.
The group will need to gather 31,164 signatures over the course of a year to put the question on the ballot in 2022. Then, it’s up to the state’s voters.
According to the website Ballotpedia.com, 15 states have term limits on state lawmakers.
Opponents of term limits say they limit the kind of expertise that’s needed in lawmaking, and that’s a good point. Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, has served in the Legislature for more than 40 years and is widely considered to be a sage and wise source of information and leadership among other lawmakers. Even governors compliment his expertise.
Opponents also say a process that limits terms already exists. It’s called the ballot box, and voters who are unhappy with lawmakers can use it to vote them out.
Of course, it’s not really that easy, since veteran lawmakers have name recognition on their side, as well as campaign war chests that apparently are growing.
“The money in the system is bothering me,” Schafer told Forum Communications Co. blogger and columnist Rob Port during Port’s Plain Talk Live broadcast. He later told the Grand Forks Herald he is skeptical of changing the rules, though. “A legislative race in North Dakota used to cost $3,000 or $5,000. … Today, (some) races cost $50,000, $70,000. Some of those races cost $100,000 and more for a part-time legislative seat in North Dakota. That’s crazy to me.”
Veteran lawmakers – those with clout – are the ones who have the best chance to get that kind of backing. And a wanna-be lawmaker who doesn’t have clout, name recognition or, especially, that kind of financial wherewithal?
Well, that potential lawmaker – someone bright and with more ideas than cash – probably doesn’t stand a chance.
Further, will North Dakota have enough candidates interested to consistently come forward? Or does the sparsity of the state add an uneasy wrinkle to term limits?
There are all sorts of arguments against term limits, and it’s likely they’ll be discussed thoroughly in the coming months – especially if the petition is successful and a vote is scheduled. But term limits aren’t some wild idea that should be quickly swept aside.