Jerry Kopel


Have term limit laws really made any difference in the state legislature? Yes, and no. Colorado's law limits legislators to eight consecutive years in the House or Senate, but incumbents can then run for another eight years service in the other chamber.

During World War II, when army battalions were decimated, there were always survivors, hardened by experience and able to pass on their knowledge to rookies who filled the ranks. Yes, term limits have made a difference. In our legislative battalions, there are fewer and fewer veterans to aid the rookies.

But the answer is also "no". Legislative term limits haven't made the difference promised by its supporters of "fresh blood" because an overwhelming number of legislators were ALREADY leaving voluntarily long before the 1990 term limit law began removing legislators in the 1998 elections.

I checked the list of 100 legislators in office in 1981, against the names of 100 legislators in office in 1991. Eighty-three of the 100 in 1981 were no longer serving in either the House or Senate in 1991. Then I checked the 100 legislators in office in 1991 and compared their names with the 100 legislators of 2001. Ninety-one were no longer serving in 2001. Eighty-three from 91 equals eight.

Experienced leadership at the helm is being lost. Before term limits, House Speaker Bev Bledsoe served 10 years as speaker (1981-91). His successor, Chuck Berry served eight years (1991-99). Berry was term-limited. Russ George replaced Berry, serving two years (1999-01). George was term limited. Present Speaker Doug Dean will only serve two years (2001-2003) Dean is term limited.

That may be appealing on the surface: Keep bringing in fresh blood. But some satirists are comparing Colorado's legislative leadership to the musical chairs of Italian and Japanese prime ministers. And Speaker Doug Dean recently acknowledged that term limits have hurt legislative leadership's ability to match the governor in swaying public opinion. Our legislative leaders are lame ducks before they even get a chance to test the waters.

Go back a few years. House Speaker Bledsoe once watched a tribe of reporters follow Gov. Romer and a friend asked "Why don't you run for governor?" Bledsoe's response was "Why should I? I already hold the most powerful position in state government." Not any more.

Ted Strickland served 10 years as Senate President (1983-1993). He lost the Senate election in 1992 to a Democrat, and was succeeded by Tom Norton who served six years as president (1993-1999). Norton was ousted by term limits. Ray Powers became Senate President (1999-2001). Powers would have been ousted by term limits even if Democrats had not won the Senate. Stan Matsunaka is presently Senate President (2001-03). He will be ousted by term limits in January of 2003.

Meanwhile, two state legislators want to amend term limit laws that are part of the state constitution. Changes can occur by a vote of the people in November 2002 if the bills pass the legislature. Sen. Ken Gordon introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 002 to remove the state's 22 district attorneys from term limit restrictions.

State Rep. Frank Weddig's bill would allow legislators to serve 12 consecutive years in either house, four more years than presently available. Weddig was term-limited in the Senate and successfully ran for the House in 2000.

Of course, some people like U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond do overstay their welcome. State Sen. Casimiro Barela served two years in the Colorado territorial legislature and 40 years (November, 1876-December, 1916) in the state senate. He began his legislative duties at age 25.

State Sen. Sam Taylor served 40 years in the state senate (1935-75). I was seven when Taylor first took office. I was interviewing him for the Walsenburg World Independent when he started his sixteenth year in office. And I served with him in the legislature for six years before he retired in January of 1975.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives.)

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