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Our view: It's not yet time for term limits in North Dakota

Whereas longtime elected officials do gain power with their longevity, they also gain valuable experience that cannot be quickly absorbed by newcomers.

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North Dakota is one of 35 states that do not have term limits for state lawmakers. Some want to put the issue before the state’s voters, including the backers of a recent petition that was submitted to North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

The group needed 31,164 valid signatures, but Jaeger’s office invalidated thousands of the signatures for notary issues or simply that they were deemed “inadequate” – meaning that some might have violated rules for writing their signature, signed the petition more than once and so forth.

For the record, term limits do feel right. It seems odd in contemporary politics to allow state-level lawmakers to accrue so much power via longevity. In some cases, lawmakers with years of experience can be more powerful than, say, the governor.

Yet there has not yet been enough evidence to convince us that term limits should be enacted in North Dakota.

Jaeger’s decision to invalidate the petition that recently came through his office was the right one. If enough signatures were invalid, the petition should not be allowed to move forward. Some will cry foul, but procedure must be followed to the letter of the law on petitions. When it’s not, it can establish precedent, which opens the door for other questionable petitions in the future.

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Faulty petitions aside, North Dakotans must go slow when deciding the future of term limits.

Whereas longtime elected officials do gain power with their longevity, they also gain valuable experience that cannot be quickly absorbed by newcomers.

And in North Dakota – where lawmakers only meet every two years – we see that kind of experience as an invaluable asset that should not be squandered. Losing it would create a void that would make it easier for lobbyists – who obviously have no term limits – to exert more influence into the process.

Term limits also could lead to further divisiveness, since new lawmakers who are not concerned about longtime reelection may feel they have nothing to lose by promoting radical ideas.

The proposal from the group North Dakota for Term Limits would have limited the governor and members of the Legislature to eight consecutive years in office.

At present, only 15 states have term limits for legislators, while 35 have term limits for the governor. South Dakota is one of them; in that state, members of the Legislature are limited to eight consecutive years in one chamber, but they can move to another and run again if they like. It has created an odd carousel of lawmakers who have been in office for decades and who move back and forth between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Governors of all states should be limited to two terms, but given the alternatives – that lawmakers need the experience to run our state’s unique biennial budget, that term limits give power to lobbyists and that there are workarounds to most states’ term-limit rules – our preference is to just leave things as they are.

And, of course, North Dakota does have a safeguard in place to oust lawmakers who have served too long, whose politics no longer align with their constituents or who simply have overstayed their welcome.

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It’s called Election Day.

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