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October 13, 2015

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j. patrick coolican:

The misguided logic — and cruel irony — of term limits in Nevada

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J. Patrick Coolican

CARSON CITY -- The Nevada Legislature already has a stiff wind in its face when it comes to solving our longstanding problems. They are basically volunteers. They meet for just 120 days every other year. They convene as far as 450 miles from home and constituents.

And now add another: The imposition of term limits, a constitutional amendment that went into effect last year and is quickly showing itself to be bad policy.

The origins of term limits came from a goal that was lofty but ultimately misguided, and another that was cynically partisan.

Let's start with the cynically partisan, because that's so often what drives issues. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the re-election rate in Congress approached body temperature levels, and the Democrats' decades-long grip on the House of Representatives seemed interminable. So Republicans discovered a new favorite issue: Term limits. Its advocates argued that the electoral advantage of incumbency was so vast, and its effect on governance so perverse, that we needed to disenfranchise ourselves -- take the bottle out of our hands before we could drink of the poison.

Well, lo and behold, 1994 came along and swept Republicans into power, led by a lovably ambitious loudmouth named Newt Gingrich. Term limits were part of the Republicans' "Contract for America" that year, but -- shocker! -- once in power, that was mostly the end of term limits talk.

Unfortunately, out in the hinterlands, we didn't get the memo that term limits were no longer needed because Republicans had won.

Term limits became constitutional law in Nevada after passing in 1994 and 1996. (In-between, in an act of brazenly self interested judicial activism, the Supreme Court split the amendment into two -- A)elected officeholders; B)judges. Part A passed, Part B failed, so we don't have term-limited judges. (Judges shouldn't be elected anyway -- a topic for another elitist column.)

Now, on to the the lofty but misguided motivation for term limits: They were supposed to eliminate the dreaded "career politician" and return us to the days of citizen legislators. The problem is that the work is quite complicated, requiring knowledge of policy, process, players. Would you prefer a "citizen doctor" or a "career doctor"?

That brings us to the present. Term limits have ushered in a big crop of freshman who are having to get up to speed while we solve a budget crisis. More important, say many legislators and lobbyists, we've already lost significant leadership experience and will lose more of it every session.

Closing deals and shutting down the session is its own art form, and the number of people with the experience and skills to do it is quickly dwindling to zero. Moreover, leaders need leverage. If they're in their final term, there's very little they can do for -- or to -- other legislators, which can make them powerless. This could explain how the Assembly Democratic caucus briefly melted down last week. Speaker John Oceguera is on his way out the door.

This calls to mind another problem -- legislators are always on the hunt for the next office. Both Oceguera and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford are thought to have congressional ambitions. Witness term limits in California, where elected officials move from the legislature to city council to school board.

In other words, term limits, which were intended to reduce politicization, have done the opposite.

Instead of former legislators such as Bill Raggio or Barbara Buckley, who were in safe seats and loved legislating and so could be counted on to bring their wealth of experience to Carson City every two years, now, "It seems everybody is worried about their next election," an experienced lobbyist told me.

Unfortunately, it's highly unlikely any elected official or special interest would make the push to undo term limits because it would be seen as politically risky to reverse law the voters approved.

So we're stuck with term limits, like a smoker's cough.

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