NORMAN — Twenty years after Oklahomans elected to place a 12-year cap on the amount of time state legislators could serve, voters again will head to the polls this November to consider instituting term limits for statewide officials.
State Question 747 would amend the state Constitution to limit service as lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, commissioner of labor, auditor and inspector, superintendent of public instruction and insurance commissioner to eight years. The governor is the only statewide elected office with a current term limit; however, it applies only to two consecutive terms.
With the effects of the legislative limits just being realized in the last six years, advocates of State Question 747 say the measure will further cut down on corruption and keep elected leaders from amassing too much power. Meanwhile, others argue the limits keep some of the best and most experienced officials from serving.
Legislative term limits
In 1990, Oklahoma became the first state in the country to set a ceiling on the amount of time members of the House of Representatives and the Senate could serve in either chamber. Since the change was not retroactive, legislators began to be term-limited by 2004 and a total of 85 lawmakers have been barred from running again in the six-year period because of the change.
Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, who sponsored the legislation in 2009 that led to state question 747, said term limits in the legislature already have shown benefits. He said a fresh roster of lawmakers provides new ideas to the process and prevents legislators from building too much influence that can be abused over the years.
“This way (elected officials) will have to live with the laws that they create,” he said. “What our founding fathers envisioned is that we will have a citizen legislature and not so much of an elite class of politicians who can be there forever.”
Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman, is one of 10 legislators who cannot seek re-election this year because of the term limits clause. Nations, who added he would probably serve another term if allowed, said he generally opposes term limits because they can keep competent and knowledgeable lawmakers from continuing their work.
“The price you pay is that without other long-serving members, you lose the institutional memory they have,” he said. And while Murphey said term limits are beneficial because they prevent the legislative branch from being too powerful, Nation contends this is a negative consequence since it elevates the influence of non-elected players such as lobbyists and bureaucrats.
Effect on the executive branch
Brian Downs, executive director of Oklahomans for Responsible Government, said his group views the term-limit policy of the legislature as a success already and supports extending the limits to the executive branch to create “consistency across the board.”
Instead of the 12-year restriction that the legislators have, State Question 747 would prevent the statewide official from seeking re-election after serving a lifetime limit of eight years in the position. In addition, it would limit service as state corporation commissioner to 12 years.
Downs said creating term limits for the executive officers is as important as doing so for the legislature. He said incumbents in those positions can lack creativity in finding new solutions and are at risk of being complacent in their roles.
“We need to have new faces and new ideas,” he said.
Downs also rejected the argument that limits would prevent the most qualified people from serving.
“Very few people in the state actually serve in state government,” he said. “There are a lot of sharp people out there, so we are going to see lots of people run for office in the future, which is great. And people that are affected by term limits can always run for new positions.”
Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks term limits for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said limiting service for the executive branch has been more common in the past than the legislative branch. She said many states included term limits for executive officers in their initial drafting of their constitutions.
In the mid-1990s, she said the term-limit movement reached a peak as most states with ballot initiatives considered or approved the measure for legislators. Although she said some states, such as Idaho, saw voter dissatisfaction with the limits after adopting them, she said the policy continues to be popular in many areas of the country.
Even though he disapproves of the policy, Nations also noted there is a strong term-limit advocacy movement in the state, and he doesn’t see the state reversing its course. Downs agreed, saying he is a confident voters will approve State Question 747 on Nov. 2.
“There is a lot of support,” he said. “It will pass overwhelmingly.”
Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI and The Transcript. He can be reached at email@example.com.