Do term limits dumb down the political dialogue in Ohio?
March 17, 2009
Have term-limits hurt public policy in Ohio? When term limits were passed by Ohio voters in 1992 the idea was simple: they promised relief from mediocre, self-interested incumbents and partisan legislatures stuck in gridlock. Term limits were intended to create more competitive elections while also creating citizen legislatures. Or, as the CATO Institute argued in 1995, "to effectively end politics as a lifetime sinecure," (see here) thereby making public service a leave of absence from a productive, private sector career.
Ohio is one of 15 states with term limits. Ours kicked in for lawmakers and other state-level elected office holders in 2000 when 45 House seats and six Senate seats were term-limited. The 2008 election resulted in the biggest turnover since then. Of 99 House members, 32 are new members and 21 of those are new because of term limits. The Senate is far more senior with only four of the 33 members new to the chamber, and the new senators all had previous legislative experience.
A month into their first term, and before they even received their new business cards, these new House members were presented with a 3,000-plus page biennial budget bill from the governor that included a substantial redesign of the state's education system. The proposed changes included a significantly revamped school funding system, proposals for new academic standards and state assessments, myriad changes to the teacher licensure and retention system, and major revision of the state's charter school law (see here). These new lawmakers have had to become experts in a hurry, and for most, this has meant coming up to speed on issues without knowing much, if any, of the history around what they now have to vote on.
Here's an example that relates specifically to the education portion of the budget proposal. During a recent House hearing, an Ohio Education Association researcher presented the results of a study he conducted that found charter schools performed worse than Ohio's traditional district schools. Now the OEA, despite its protestations, can hardly be considered neutral on the issue of charter schools. They've been trying to kill them off since their birth in 1997. Unfortunately, not one member of the subcommittee questioned the report's results, but seemingly took them at face value.
The OEA report results may be true-yes, charter students don't perform as well as children in the suburbs-but its findings are loaded and largely irrelevant. Comparing urban charter performance with urban district performance, as Fordham has been doing for the past five years, shows that both sectors perform at comparable levels. In truth, neither sector is delivering what children really need.
Given the level of understanding of issues among new legislators, their lack of questioning may be lamentable but not surprising. How can a freshman lawmaker even begin to master a 3,000 page document in a couple of months? A lawmaker with eight years of experience is just getting savvy with the budget process when he or she must leave. This relative inexperience puts members of the Ohio General Assembly at the mercy of lobbyists and interest groups. It has also made the work of nonprofits like KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Policy Matters Ohio, the Buckeye Institute, the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, and, yes, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, more important as lawmakers and staffers look to such groups for analyses and recommendations about key legislation. There are no term limits for lobbyists, special interest groups, or nonprofit research groups, all of whom are eager to educate incoming lawmakers.
On the other hand, term-limit proponents counter that lawmakers can become entrenched in office and can become bedmates with interest groups who loyally fund their re-election campaigns over and over. Maybe, maybe not. The experience that a long-time lawmaker gains enables him or her to ask informed questions and, just as much, the ability to resist too much influence from any one interest groups.
In addition, many new lawmakers come to Columbus with axes to grind. They are more likely to be politically extreme-either right or left-and they gravitate naturally to the lobby groups that are going to reinforce their prejudices. Personal friendships across the aisle are harder to nurture. This all makes for far more partisan politics and less thoughtful policies. This is a shame as lawmakers are dealing with incredibly complex issues and problems that need more intellect than emotion to resolve.