Jerry Kopel


No need for term limits - Colorado legislators have always known when to call it quits

Term limit supporters claim it’s necessary to limit terms so legislators don’t overstay. But a little research casts doubt on the idea that overstaying was ever a problem. It would seem the whole reason for term limits is based on a myth of political junky careerist state legislators.

The number of legislators who left office every two years or less was almost as high in the years before an eight-year limit on service by a House and Senate member as it was after term limits were triggered in 1998.

And as for 2008, 24 senators and representatives were listed in a recent Denver Post article as “leaving.” Bite your tongue, Denver Post!

Three of those term-limited House members are running for the state Senate. One House member, Rep. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who is not term limited, also is running for — and will almost certainly win — the Senate seat in District 29.

Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, is running for Larimer County commissioner. If he loses, he can go back to the state Senate, where he still has two more years to serve.

Sen. Steve Ward, R-Littleton, entered the Colorado Senate in 2007, and, if he loses his race for the 6th Congressional District, he can go back to the Senate to finish the two years left on his term.

So instead of 24, there is a possible loss of only 18 members, provided that other incumbents running for the Legislature win.

I’ve been skeptical of the charge that state legislators don’t know when to quit. So, to see if they leave through their own will or because of election defeats or death, I went to the 1989 roster. The term limit constitutional amendment was adopted in 1990 to trigger removals after 1998.

I wanted to see how many legislative turnovers occurred over an eight-year period without a term limit measure in law. Not included as having left were legislators who moved from the House to the Senate or from the Senate to the House.

Please see the accompanying chart. The total gone was 90, starting from January 1989 up to, but not including, the start of the January 1997 session. There were 32 senators: 17 Republicans and 15 Democrats. In the House, 58 representatives did not stick around. There were 28 Republicans and 30 Democrats.

All were gone, without term limits forcing them out. Several died in office and a number were defeated in elections.

We lost an average of 22 or 23 legislators every two years without term limits being involved.

There are 25 members of the 2008 House who have served two years or less and are presently seeking re-election: 12 Democrats and 13 Republicans. They represent less than 49 years of experience.

Can anyone really match that total for 25 members against the 62 years of experience lost with the term limit removal of just four senators: Ken Gordon, D-Denver; Bob Hagedorn, D-Aurora; Andrew McElhany, R-Colorado Springs; and Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs?

In a recent editorial, the Rocky Mountain News pointed out that the so-called present “fresh personality” legislators made it to the Legislature because predecessors were term limited, thinning out the ranks of political careerists.

The turnover chart accompanying this column provides the hard evidence the RMN asked for in order to show that term limits were not needed.

Since leaving the Legislature in 1992 (I was one of the 90), I have often watched House committees deal with the pros and cons of a bill. Before term limits, an experienced House member could comment, “We had this bill before us 10 years ago, and one of the problems that resulted in its defeat was ...”

That is no longer possible. You can’t run to the Senate and hope to find someone around in 2009 who was in the House in 1999 if you don’t know there was a problem in 1999.

And let’s not forget that, unlike legislators, lobbyists are not term limited and are always available to provide a “spin.”

Why did I declare 22 years was enough in 1992, when I could have remained another six years, assuming I had won re-election? After all, I fit the profile of a “political careerist.”

In my last door-to-door campaign, as in previous ones, I carried note pads, which I left when no one was home. I would write “Sorry to have missed you” on each note pad.

I knew it was time to go when, on one such trip, I glanced at what I had written ... almost automatically: “Sorry to have met you.”

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.