Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oklahoma pondering logical next step

In 1990, Oklahoma was the first state to vote in term limits for its state legislature. Nearly 20 years later, the success of this experiment is encouraging the state government to extend term limits to cover more elective government offices.

The Oklahoma legislature and the governor are term limited. But if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November 2010, 8-year term limits will also be imposed on politicians employed as lieutenant governor, state auditor and inspector, attorney general, state treasurer, labor commissioner, state schools superintendent and insurance commissioner to serve no more than eight cumulative years in office.

Currently, the governor is limited to eight consecutive years but, if the amendment passes, will also be limited to eight cumulative years.

"Since term limits were approved by the people for the state legislature, there is increasingly a wide mix of backgrounds and careers found at the state capitol," said House Speaker Chris Benge. "This change will ensure fresh faces and new ideas are continuously entering the political process."

Indeed, a recent study suggests that term-limited Oklahoma – although not without its specific problems and challenges – has been one of the best-managed states in the nation.

Odds favor another term limits victory at the polls. The people continue to love term limits as much as lobbyists despise them. In a July 2007 poll by Pulse Consulting, 77 percent answered ‘yes’ to the following question: "In 2008, Oklahoma voters may be asked to vote on a measure that would establish term limits for statewide elected officials. If approved, the new law would create eight-year term limits on executive offices. If this measure were on the ballot today, would you vote for or against it?" Only 17 percent said they would vote against it.

Citizens and a couple of committed legislators have been pushing for this idea for some time. A similar bill failed in the 2008 legislative session. One wonders if the recent heavy-handed attempt by the Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson to crack down on citizen petitioning has given new impetus to the effort to expand the state’s most successful citizen initiative campaign ever. The new term limit would, after all, apply to him.

Or perhaps its success this year is due more to the economic crisis, which is forcing legislators to make tough spending decisions in light of dropping revenues. It is in such times that the flexibility of term-limited legislators versus entrenched incumbents -- with their long-term relationships with special interests -- becomes that much clearer.

Of course, there are other, more permanent reasons. Term limits bring fresh ideas and a broader range of experience to these positions and discourage corruption. Plus, as political scientist Rick Farmer of Akron University has pointed out, Oklahoma has an incumbent reelection rate over 90 percent, just like everywhere else. Citizen access and change can only effectively occur in open, competitive races – the kind term limits mandate every eight years.

This amendment can also be seen as a corrective to one arguable defect of the 1990 law: the fact that some of the state elective officials were term limited (governor, legislature) and some were not (lt. governor, other constitutional officers). This amendment puts these positions back on a level playing field.

Special thanks are in order for long-time term limits supporter Sen. Randy Brogdon (Owasso) and Rep. Jason Murphey (Guthrie) for their work to get this amendment to the people.

Now it's up to us.