Saturday, February 14, 2009

South Dakota: If first you don't succeed...

Term limits touch the most delicate nerve in the body of a professional politician. Sometimes it seems like the prospect of having to find another job -- or even face a competitive campaign for another office -- is akin to death for them. They'll go to any length to hang on to the perks and power. Their machinations can be remarkably brazen.

Consider South Dakota. In 1992, 64% of South Dakotans voted to limits the terms of their legislators to eight years in office. Politicians tried to unshackle themselves last year, putting a term limits repeal on the ballot in November 2008. This time 76% of voters embraced eight-year term limits and rejected the repeal.

Ah, but that was three months ago. On Feb. 9, the South Dakota Senate approved 21-14 a bill (SJR3) that would lengthen the South Dakota term limit to 12 years. Maybe the voters changed their mind over the holidays? No, polling from last week show that 68% oppose the proposed longer terms and even expose citizen anger that the issue is being brought up again.

How are the politicians going to sell this to the voters after such a resounding support for term limits in November? Looking at other states may provide a clue.

Ever since term limits were imposed on state legislatures in the 1990s, professional politicians have been searching for the right way to package a term limits repeal. They haven't found it yet, as every attempt to sell a repeal to voters have failed at the ballot box, including three times (California, Maine and South Dakota) in the last year alone. The politicians have had the best success, relatively speaking, when they can craft an anti-term limits bill that they can market as being pro-term limits.

That's what they are attempting in South Dakota. SJR3 would increase the length of Senate terms to four years from the current two, a change which -- under the current 4-term limit -- would actually stretch the term limit out to 16 years. So, SJR3 would also "strengthen" South Dakota's term limits by reducing the limit from four terms to three. Get it? Voting for SJR3 would make South Dakota's term limits law tougher!

Experience in other states (California tried a trick like this last February) shows that their scheme might poll well at the beginning, backed by a hunk of special interest money, but by election time the trick will be exposed and term limits will win again no much how much public resources are wasted in the attempt.