Martin, Kelly offer pithy quotes and tough analysis of Missouri's term limits
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2009 - What's the impact of Missouri's legislative term limits?
Has it filled the state Capitol with "people who don't know enough," as state Rep. Chris Kelly asserts?
Or has it brought in a new crop of lawmakers who are "awesome to watch,'' as former gubernatorial chief of staff Ed Martin puts it?
Martin and Kelly debated the pros and cons of the state's 16-year-old limits Wednesday night during Webster University's latest Holden Pizza and Politics Forum.
Former Gov. Bob Holden moderated the civil exchange, while also admitting that he's not too keen on how term limits has changed Jefferson City.
In 1992, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved legislative term limits that restrict lawmakers to no more than four two-year terms in the state House and two four-year terms in the state Senate. That led to forcing out a huge bloc of veteran legislators, a majority Democrats, in 2000 and 2002.
The limits are seen as a key force behind the GOP takeover of the state Senate in 2001 and the state House in 2003. But a new wave of forced departures, most of them Republicans, are slated to take place in 2010.
Holden and Kelly, both Democrats, served together in the state House during pre-limit days in the 1980s. Kelly, D-Columbia, left before term limits went into effect in 1993, allowing him to start a new state House career with his election last year.
Kelly, D-Columbia, acknowledged that the pre-term limits weren't perfect, with some legislators staying in office too long or -- as in the case of the 14-year reign of former House Speaker Bob Griffin -- abusing their power.
(Griffin, a Democrat who was the state's longest serving speaker -- 1981-95 -- was convicted on federal corruption charges in 1998. Former President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence in 2001.)
But Kelly said the strengths of veteran legislators outweighed the differences. Longtime legislators generally became well versed in the workings of state government and state spending, so "we made fewer big mistakes,'' Kelly said.
Now, he said, many Missouri legislators are "less informed, less interested in details of the work'' and more interested in political gain.
Some contend that the current crop of legislators are "stupid,'' Kelly continued. "I think that's wrong, but it is accurate to say they just don't know enough."
He observed that one portrayal of the attitude in the two-term Senate is "first term, don't know; second term, don't care."
Martin, a Republican now running for Congress, replied that there were some respected veteran legislators -- he singled out former state Sen. John Schneider, D-Florissant -- but in his view, there were far more lawmakers who stayed in office too long.
"We're well served to cycle out people,'' said Martin. "Term limits opens up every eight years an environment of bringing new people into the system."
Martin served as chief of staff to former Gov. Matt Blunt, a fellow Republican, for close to two years. Martin also has headed Term Limits for Missouri, a group that seeks to limit all statewide officials to two four-year terms. Now, such a limit only applies to the governor and state treasurer.
Martin pledged that if he's elected to Congress next year, defeating Democrat Russ Carnahan, he'll sponsor a bill immediately to impose term limits on members of Congress.
As he sees, term limits are more necessary now, on all levels of government, than they were in the early days of the United States: "In the old days, there was natural term limits because people didn't live as long."
Still, Martin did acknowledge some minuses. There is more "jockeying for leadership positions'' in the state Capitol, he said, because legislators have a limited time to move up the ranks.
(Kelly, by the way, got off the best quote of the night when he said the 163-member state House consists of "one speaker and 162 people who think they can do the job better.")
Kelly contended that term limits is prompting legislators to stick together as a party, and not work across partisan lines. Martin agreed that there's more partisanship in the state Capitol, but he doubted that term limits were the culprit. Martin noted that Congress has no term limits, and partisanship is heightened there as well.
Martin acknowledged that Missouri Republicans long have been the strongest advocates of term limits, and that the resolve among some party leaders may be weakening since the GOP will lose more members due to term limits in the 2010 elections.
He said he was open to the idea of maybe extending Missouri's term limits to 12 years a chamber.
As for Kelly, he said he'd go for "more time,'' period.
Both men also segued briefly into another hot political topic in Missouri -- the campaign donation limits that were in place from 1995 until the GOP-controlled Legislature repealed the limits in 2007.
Kelly lamented the current lack of limits and recalled how he had unsuccessfully pressed for limits in the 1980s.
Martin, who favored the repeal, said, "Transparency is the best leveler'' of money in politics.
The power of money in politics is "a little like original sin,'' Martin said, in arguably his best line of the evening. No matter what happens, "it's going to be around."