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Montana term limits frustrate, but do not stop, legislators from seeking election as many times as they wish.

Nearly all senators and representatives serve as long at the state Capitol as they did before voters added term limits to the Montana Constitution with a 1992 ballot measure, according to a Lee Newspapers analysis. And a recent change to state law removed the requirement to take a break after 16 years.

“It used to be you served eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate then you had to be out for two years before you could come back,” Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said. “But they took that period out.”

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, is the first legislator to take advantage of the seemingly minor definition change. It allows him to run for a seat in his original chamber immediately after serving maximum consecutive terms in both the House and Senate. Conveniently, Rep. Edie McClafferty, also a Democrat, is termed out of the House, so her district is without an incumbent. He has filed for election to her HD 73 seat, while she has decided to run for his SD 38 seat to likewise continue service.

Most legislators argue that the maneuvering forced by term limits is not only a hassle, but has damaged the balance of the state government by draining the body of institutional knowledge while shifting power to the governor, bureaucrats and lobbyists. Other political observers also argue term limits have been a driving factor behind increased partisanship that has tied up or killed major bills in recent sessions.

“Term limits have not been good for Montana,” said McCulloch, who is responsible for overseeing elections throughout the state. She admitted the rules, nonetheless, are unlikely to go away.

Ed Butcher, the former state senator from Winifred who worked with his son to put term limits on the ballot, called the rules a success.

“We didn’t want to stop them from serving in the Legislature,” he said, noting that he does not consider it a loophole in the law that legislators can switch back-and-forth between chambers. “We just wanted to break up the power structures that develop when people are there forever.”

Starting in the 1990s, Montana was one of 21 states where voters created term limits through the initiative process, a number that likely would be higher if more states allowed ballot measures. In addition to limits on executive offices like governor, Montana legislators can only serve eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate during any 16-year period.

Like other states, Montana tried to set limits for leaders elected to U.S. Congress, but the Supreme Court of the United States struck down those provisions. Some political scientists have since speculated that the popularity of the movement was driven largely by an interest to fight corruption at the federal level.

“The state Legislature may have paid the price for an impression people had about Congress,” said Bob Brown, a Republican who served 30 years in the Legislature before being elected Secretary of State and narrowly losing a 2004 gubernatorial race against Brian Schweitzer.

Hard to change

Courts or legislatures in six states have repealed term limits. Because Montana’s rules were added to the Constitution, legislators cannot amend them without voter approval by referendum. Every session some legislators discuss asking voters to expand or remove the limits, but few of those measures make it to the ballot and those that have were shot down.

“I believe the trend was driven by people who wanted to ensure our democracy was citizen-driven and not done by professionals,” said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “In the end, it’s not at all clear that having term limits has had that effect.”

Most Montana legislators serve just as long today as they did before term limits, according to an analysis of years served at the time of a legislator’s departure.

Legislators who left office in the 1990s or 1980s served a median of six years, slightly higher than the four-year median seen each of the previous five decades. Even after the first legislators were termed out of office, the median remains six years.

Montana political observers argue that term limits force sometimes uncomfortable decisions for legislators who want to continue their service but do not have a convenient district opening. Nancy Keenan also argues that they weakening the power of a vote.

“It takes away the voice of the people for who they want and for how long they want them,” said the executive director of the Montana Democratic Party.

Of the 13 House districts where term limits have forced out incumbents, five of those legislators are running for open Senate seats in this fall’s election. Of 11 senators who have reached their maximum in that chamber, three have filed for House district races.

Two of those races involve a district swap similar to the one between Keane and McClafferty of Butte. Carolyn Pease-Lopez of Billings was elected to the House the same year Sharon Stewart-Peregoy of Crow Agency was elected to the Senate. Eight years later, both Democrats have filed to run for each other’s seat.

No significant difference exists between the median length of service for Republicans and Democrats, nor the number of members from each party that have been termed out of office. But one party has dominated the list of longest serving members and has therefore lost the largest accumulation of institutional knowledge. Of the 25 people who served the most time in the Legislature — ranging from 24 to 53 years — 18 were Democrats. Most left office before term limits appeared on the 1992 ballot.

Underhill said long-serving legislators can be an asset or a barrier to fellow members, depending on their willingness to collaborate.

“If you like that person, it’s really a great thing,” she said of veteran legislators who accrue authority within committees or caucuses. “If you don’t like that person, it can be really frustrating.”

Moving forward

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Butcher, a Republican, said his motivation behind pushing for term limits was not about party affiliation, but rather focused on giving new ideas a better chance of moving forward and breaking up entrenched political alliances.

“There’s stagnation that happens when you have people serve too long,” he said. “We had an old guard running committees that would table bills they didn’t want to consider.”

David Wanzenried, a Democrat who worked on the governor’s staff before serving 18 years in the Legislature, disputed Butcher’s characterization. He said a handful of incidents cannot be construed as being a regular occurrence.

“I don’t know that old-timers stymied newcomers as much as people would say,” he said, recalling earlier decades when he says committees fostered substantive discussions rather than taking turns to make talking points. “Now, a lot of the people that get elected want to go to Helena to do A or B. They don’t want to discuss it. No negotiations. No collaboration. They just want to go over and do it. That’s a problem. Any deliberative body has to have an exchange of ideas.”

Political observers said it’s difficult to pinpoint how much term limits contributed to the culture shift at the Legislature, particularly because of a growing polarization in political discourse nationwide. At minimum, they both share an underlying theme: Voters increasingly distrust government.

Years before Bob Keenan of Bigfork ran for the Legislature, he was among the 67 percent of Montanans fed up with reports of cronyism in Washington, D.C. and who voted to add term limits to the state Constitution, assuming to some degree the same problems also existed in state government.

“I was on the outside looking in and didn’t know anything about the issue other than it was a bumper-sticker mentality of, ‘Let’s clean up the House and the Senate, too,’” the Republican recalled.

Keenan, who has now served nearly 14 years in the Legislature, has since changed his mind about state term limits.

“If you’re in office and you’re opposed to term limits you’re accused of being a career politician and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said, noting that the stress of balancing his service with business and family commitments was the main reason he did not return to the House after being termed out of the Senate in 2006. He successfully ran again for a Senate seat in 2014, when Verdell Jackson was termed out. “You really have to get out and get a job and make a living.”

Even before term limits, Montana leaders prided themselves on serving what they considered the most citizen-oriented Legislature in the country. It is one of just four states where the Legislature meets biennially rather than annually. Montana legislators spend fewer days in session — 90 days every two years — than any other state in the country, meaning they spend more time living in the communities they represent. Members of the House, who must run for reelection every two years, can easily spend more time campaigning than governing. When attempts are made to raise the limited pay — $10.33 an hour plus mileage during the 90-day session — some argue it is a good idea to make legislative service a personal financial sacrifice to discourage career politicians.

“When I voted for term limits, I didn’t realize the importance of having the people who had been there through lots of different issues,” he said, noting that he was mentored in his first terms by some of the last decades-serving members. “Now that I’m back in the Legislature, I’ve found it to be a very different place.”

Because of term limits, the need to form new relationships never ends. Few of the legislators Keenan served with during his first stint remain. Even Keane, among the longest-serving members of the Legislature’s recent era, expects to “start from scratch” if he returns to the House in 2017.

“I don’t know most of the people in the House,” he said. “It’ll be a new game for me over there.”

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Note: This story is part one in a two-part series. Coming Monday: More on the effects of term limits on the Legislature.

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Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.