Support for Ohio term limits vanishing

The Columbus Dispatch — April 07, 2013

Only a third of Ohioans say the General Assembly has its priorities straight.

Just a quarter trust lawmakers and others in state government “to do what is right” at least most of the time.

And a mere sixth believe term limits enacted by Ohio voters more than 20 years ago have made the legislature better.

What do those who have worked with state legislators for decades say about that last finding from a Saperstein Associates poll for The Dispatch?

“I think term limits has been sort of a disaster,” said Larry Long, who’s spent the past 39 years with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

“It’s bad government, period,” said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association, who has worked with the legislature in various roles for 28 years. “For supporters of term limits, I don’t think they’ve gotten the kind of change in government that they thought they were going to get.”

Tom Ash, director of governmental relations for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, said: “I don’t think that there’s anything good to be said for term limits.” He has worked with the legislature for about 20 years and was a superintendent for 21 years.

Martin D. Saperstein, head of the Columbus firm that conducted the survey of more than 1,000 Ohioans, said, “Clearly, a majority of our respondents don’t think that term limits made much of a difference.”

Political persuasion doesn’t matter: Democrats, Republicans and independents are within a single percentage point of each other in agreeing about the lack of a positive impact.

It matters little where you live, your race, whether you have a cellphone or land line, what direction you think Ohio is headed, or how old you are — although Ohioans 55 or older are more apt to see the down side of term limits, approved by Ohio voters in 1992 by more than a 2-to-1 ratio.

Since then, legislators have been limited to consecutive terms totaling eight years in one chamber. The same limit was put on nonjudicial state officeholders; the governor has been restricted since the late 1950s.

Knowing the history
Leaders of the American Policy Roundtable, a conservative group instrumental in the 1992 push that brought term limits to the Buckeye State, say it’s only the Statehouse “ruling class” that wants to change them.

“When I talk to everyday people on the street, they never say, ‘Boy, I wish we didn’t have term limits,’??” said Rob Walgate, vice president of the organization. “Congress doesn’t have term limits and how’s that working out?”

David Zanotti, head of the group based near Cleveland, questioned the validity of the poll, because it included younger Ohioans who wouldn’t remember what the legislature was like before term limits.

“They would not know the history of career party bosses dominating the Statehouse by holding court each night at the local pub. That local pub isn’t even in business any longer. The results of the poll don’t reflect negatively on term limits but certainly remind the legislature that voters don’t seem especially happy with their elected officials.”

Tea party leader Chris Littleton, head of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, called for “fundamental changes to redistricting as a means to bring about real change” because “gerrymandering has made political favors too easy, and therefore term limits less effective.”

Matt Mayer, president of Opportunity Ohio, a free-market research group based in Dublin, and author of Taxpayers Don’t Stand a Chance, said that uncompetitive legislative districts and political party meddling in primaries have lessened the impact of term limits.

He also says that a closer look at the statistics shows that the legislature hasn’t really lost that much experience because of the limits — mainly because several members dodge them by moving between the House and Senate (which Zanotti says was intentionally allowed in the 1992 ballot issue).

“Though certainly not the panacea people had hoped for, getting new blood in Columbus on the whole is the lesser of two evils,” Mayer said.

In with the new
The “new blood” benefit is one that even most term-limit opponents concede.

“I have seen term limits bring in some absolutely fantastic people that otherwise might not have gotten into the political arena … who have brought great ideas, vitality and enthusiasm into the process,” said Matt Schuler, former Senate chief of staff who is now executive director of the Ohio Casino Control Commission. “But I’m not sure you wouldn’t have that over time anyway.”

Sen. Randy Gardner, who served two terms in the House and is now in his second Senate stint, said he can cite several examples of new legislators who made a positive impact.

“But it speeds up ambitions and our agenda, and sometimes that gets in the way of doing our best job,” the Bowling Green Republican added.

Former Senate President Tom Niehaus has seen both ends of term limits: He won election to the House in 2000 when his predecessor had to leave office because she had “maxed out,” and he was forced to step down from the Senate last year after two terms. The Republican from New Richmond said the best term limits come when voters exercise their rights at the polls.

He proposes giving House members four-year terms (instead of two) and senators six-year terms (instead of four), and lengthening the limits to 12 years. That preserves legislative expertise and reduces the number of elections, which in turn reduces the impact of campaign contributions.

“I’d like there to be more focus on policy rather than running for office,” Niehaus said. “You get people focused on short-term issues, short-term solutions, rather than longer-term solutions; you have two-year election cycles for the House that cause people to be looking short term, as opposed to the longer term; and then you have the parochial voters that only care about one issue.”

Executive power
House Speaker William G. Batchelder — whose legislative career that began in 1969 will end next year because of term limits — said even the CPAs and physicians he has recruited to run for office struggle to obtain the depth of knowledge required to be a good legislator.

“It’s not an intellectual matter; it’s an experience matter,” he said. “The senior members sort of have a pact among themselves to help the new members understand how the process works and how important working with others is to getting things done.”

But a term-limited legislature has upset the balance of power in state government, the Medina Republican said. “There’s no question that the governor and the cabinet members have a ton more power than they did.”

Batchelder recalled how veteran committee chairmen used to educate cabinet members, especially in more-technical areas such as insurance and utilities. But now, it’s the appointed officials, not those elected by the people, with the knowledge — and thus the power.

“About half of the members understand the details of what’s going on,” he said.

Those sentiments are bipartisan, echoed by Sen. Charleta B. Tavares, a Democrat from Columbus who began her public-service career as a legislative staffer in the 1980s.

“You can’t teach what you don’t know. We have legislators assuming leadership positions who don’t even know the legislative process,” she said. “You’re handing over the power to the administration and the lobbyists.”

Jim Tilling, who was a political-science professor at Ohio University before taking on a variety of state government roles, said Ohioans themselves share the blame for thinking term limits would solve legislative ills. It was a simplistic solution to compensate for an uninformed electorate.

“We want to make the one or two changes that are simple and not costly that will solve all these perceived problems that we have,” he said. “The bottom line is it seemed like a real simple and sensible thing to do, but it wasn’t.”

The random-digit-dial telephone poll of 1,003 Ohio adults March 5-10 has a margin of sampling error of 3.1 percentage points overall, higher for subgroups. The results were slightly weighted to better reflect known population statistics.

The response rate was 28 percent. The poll was financed solely by The Dispatch.