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In Missouri, legislative term limits pack a punch at the top

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2012 - As the 2012 session of the Missouri General Assembly is assessed by all sides, any discussion of achievements, failures – and the future -- has to be framed around an indisputable fact: Term limits matter.

Looking ahead, the impact of the state’s legislative term limits arguably is being felt most dramatically at the top.

All four Republican and Democratic leaders in this year’s Missouri House and Senate won’t be around next January, when the General Assembly next convenes in regular session.

Three – House Speaker Steve Tilley, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer and Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan -- are leaving because of term limits, which generally restricts legislators to no more than four two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate.

The fourth -- House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City — seems to have been influenced by term limits in a more indirect way.  Talboy, who could serve one more term in the state House, has announced that he’s stepping down as the House’s top Democrat and as a legislator.

He’s taking on a new job with the Kansas City firm of Burns & McDonnell as its first director of governmental affairs. In other words, Talboy is becoming a lobbyist.

Talboy will join a number of former legislators, Republicans and Democrats, who’ve left the House and Senate floor to mill around its perimeters as paid advocates for various firms and groups around the state. They include former heads of the House and Senate.

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, sees Talboy’s early defection as an example of how term limits has shifted power from elected legislators to unelected lobbyists and staff members.

Elected state legislators are advancing “a personal agenda, as opposed to an institutional agenda,” argues Connor, because their time in office – and their political clout -- is limited.

"The sense of ‘I’ is more prevalent with term limits than without it," he added.

Before the last session got underway last January, the top House and Senate leaders met for private sessions aimed at crafting a common agenda.

Speaker Tilley, R-Perryville, and Senate president Mayer, R-Dexter, were each driven, in part, by term limits. Both wanted to achieve certain goals during their last session.

Reviews may be mixed on the session’s overall performance, but there’s no doubt that – by the session’s final days – Mayer's and Tilley’s attentions appear to have shifted to their own futures. Both men had already taken a back seat, at least in public, to their likely successors.

In fact, Tilley left the Capitol several hours before Friday’s official adjournment  to attend his daughter’s high school graduation. That left the TV coverage of the final day -- and of the session overall -- largely focused on his likely 2013 successor, House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka. It was Jones who led the post-session news conference.

On the Senate side, a similar scenario ensured, featuring Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, Mayer’s likely successor.

Term limits and political strife

While emphasizing that terms limits have definite “pros and cons,’’ Connor said that “it’s a particular problem when it comes to leadership.’’ Leaders, he said, are “not there long enough” truly to lead.

Since the leaders in Missouri’s House and Senate are usually in such top posts for only two years, they don’t amass enough legislative or political expertise, Connor asserted. 

In addition, he contended that House and Senate leaders aren’t in place long enough to develop relationships and understand how the other chamber works. Connor argues that term limits are a significant factor in the strains between the state House and Senate.

“Term limits,’’ said Connor, “has caused leadership to be less successful.”

The strains aren’t just among legislators. Arguably, the revolving leadership has affected the legislative branch’s relationship with the governor as well.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has intentionally sought to maintain a low-key approach during the legislative session.

One obvious reason is the fact that Republicans control both chambers. Nixon has made a point since taking office in 2009 to avoid the conflicts that hampered the last Democratic governor, Bob Holden, who frequently was in high-profile – and often, unresolved -- disputes with the Republicans controlling the legislature.

But Nixon did appear to have forged a friendly relationship with the Senate speaker pro tem in 2009 and 2010, Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph. The two held regular private meetings during those sessions. During his end-of-session news conference in 2010, Nixon publicly praised Shields and several other term-limited senators and observed that “they’ll be missed.”

Since then, Nixon has not appeared to be on such amiable terms with Republican leaders, although Mayer said he could always talk to the governor when he needed to. 

But last Friday, Nixon demurred when he was asked about the impact of legislative term limits on this session.

Many of the state legislators, whether they are staying or leaving, are people he likely didn’t know. The Missouri House saw one of its most dramatic changeovers in 2011, with freshmen legislators, most of them Republicans, making up almost half of the 164 members.

Outgoing state Rep. Sarah Lampe, D-Springfield, who is leaving because of term limits, said that this year’s session was calmer than in 2011, when she contended that many freshmen representatives behaved “like deer caught in the headlights.”

Jones, the likely next speaker, predicts that the 2013 session will be more productive, in part, because term limits won’t drive this fall’s elections for the House.

About 25 current members can’t run for re-election this fall, and a few others are voluntarily not seeking re-election. That’s less than a third of the turnover in the 2010 election, Jones noted.

The Senate will see a significant change, since at least eight of its 34 members will be replaced this fall. They include such outspoken senators as Republicans Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, and Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield.

Crowell has been a leader in the so-far-unsuccessful effort to revamp Missouri’s system of state tax credits, while Cunningham has been a major player in the fight to change the state’s public education system.

Crowell is leaving because of term limits, while Cunningham was a victim of the legislative redistricting process conducted after after the 2010 census. She represents the 7th District in St. Louis County. As of next January, the 7th will be moved to suburban Kansas City.

Also departing is state Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who gave one of the most notable last-day speeches. Engler reflected on his narrow loss in the Senate leadership election held after the 2010 departure of Shields.

Engler lamented over what he viewed as the Senate’s losses as well.  He exhorted senators remaining in the chamber to undergo a “gut check.”

"In my opinion, these last couple of years we’ve really lost a lot of the civility, the decorum and the respect in this chamber,” Engler said. “And I’ve been a part of that. And I apologize for it. But you got to decide whether you’re going to go back to that, at some point and not let the name-calling, the divisiveness, where we scream at each other to continue to occur. Because we have to put the people of Missouri … first.”

Because of term limits, Engler is running for a state House seat. He has said he hopes, if elected, to share his Senate experience with members of the House.

Meanwhile, veteran lobbyists like Sam Lee, who represents groups opposed to abortion, expect to continue to press their case to a new crop of officeholders. Lee has been lobbying in the Capitol for close to 30 years.

Despite the different faces, Lee expects to see many of the same battles emerge, including those over tax credits and abortion.

“It’ll be déjà vu all over again,” he quipped.

Mike Kelley, a Democratic consultant, contended that term limits has contributed to legislators displaying a “deaf ear’’ on significant issues like the economy and job creation because, he said, they don’t capture headlines – and thus, offer a political boost.

“It’s a good thing they built such a big beautiful building because nothing else happens out here,” Kelley said as he wandered the Capitol halls during the final days of the session.  Term limits, he asserted, has “ruined this institution from actually accomplishing anything for the good of Missouri.”

At Missouri State, Connor wouldn’t go that far. He recalled some legislative abuses before Missouri voters passed term limits in the 1992 election. The last long-term speaker of the House, Bob Griffin, ended up going to prison.

“We passed term limits, in part, because we had too strong of leadership,’’ Connor said. “Maybe that’s what people in Missouri want – a legislature that doesn’t do too much.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.