Missouri voters love term limits. In 1965, more than 72% of Missourians approved term limits for the governor, and term limits for state legislators passed by an even greater margin in 1992.
This year, they’ll vote on Amendment 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor to two terms in office. Currently, the governor and state treasurer are the only statewide positions subject to these limits.
Those in support of the proposed amendment say it’s important to have consistency and that term limits help eliminate career politicians, while others wonder if the question in front of voters is a solution to a nonexistent problem.
Republican State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer from Parkville sponsored the amendment.
“Now every statewide elected official, if it passes, will be treated the same way and will be subject to the same eight-year term limit,” Luetkemeyer said.
But other lawmakers, such as fellow Republican Sen. Ed Emery, said the limits take away from the value of the office.
“There are some offices that are very well run, and that the voters would really prefer to keep someone in there with the experience,” said Emery, who terms out at the end of the year. “When you term limit them, you’re imposing potentially an inexperienced person into a place where someone is doing an excellent job.”
Considering how popular term limits have been in the state, many Missourians don’t believe politicians are doing an excellent job, said University of Central Missouri political scientist Robynn Kuhlmann.
“This is an ongoing populist sentiment that exists in the state of Missouri where there’s an overarching concern about career politicians and how they may be tainted by lobbyists,” Kuhlmann said.
In general, Kuhlmann said, term limits sound like a surefire way to weaken the connection between politicians and lobbyists. But research shows term limits often make this connection stronger.
Newer legislative members “aren’t informed as to the legislative process. They lack institutional experience, and some of them may rely more on the information that lobbyists give,” Kuhlmann explained.
“Lobbyists don’t go away," she added. "What does go away is some of the institutional knowledge representatives have when they’re termed out.”
Emery agrees, recalling an eye-opening conversation he had with a lobbyist.
“He said, ‘Ed, before term limits, a senator would’ve never asked me about that issue, because they always knew more about the issues than I did,” Emery said. “But he said since term limits, I get questions all the time about that because those of us in the legislature now simply don’t have the depth of experience.’”
But Luetkemeyer, who is in just his second year of office, said a motivated lawmaker can get things done regardless of term limits.
“If you have a legislator who’s very driven, somebody who works hard at the process and is really in tune with what their constituents want, you’re able to accomplish things really early on in your time in the legislature without having to be there for 20-30 years,” he said.
But this proposed constitutional amendment applies only to statewide executives, who are typically more experienced and don’t actually write legislation. That’s why Emery doesn’t see much benefit to term-limiting these positions.
“I have a hard time envisioning any specific value other than getting voters to know every eight years they’re going to have to have a new slate of people to vote on,” Emery said.
Kuhlmann is also skeptical. Going through the history of Missouri’s statewide executives, she noted it’s rare for people to serve more than two terms. For example, of the state’s past 15 lieutenant governors, only one has served beyond that.
“It seems to me as if this amendment is on the ballot without any prevailing problem associated with it,” Kuhlmann said.
But Luetkemeyer pointed to former Gov. Jay Nixon as an example of why this amendment is needed.
“He served as the state attorney general for 16 years. He served four separate terms,” Luetkemeyer said, “So certainly in very recent history we’ve had somebody serve as attorney general for a very lengthy period of time.”
The Secretary of State, which is one of the offices up for term limits, runs the state’s elections. The office says requests for mail-in ballots must be made by Oct. 21.