Lawmakers point to a meltdown during one of the legislative sessions last month — the refusal of House leadership to call for a vote on the bill that would authorize the construction of highways and other state projects — as the prime example of how a political experiment from the 1990s went awry.
It was a technical glitch in the bill’s wording, but legislators were surprised to learn that the committee chairmen — fellow Democrats who live 15 minutes apart in New Orleans — had not met to figure out a solution. The Senate chairman, Sen. J.P. Morrell, said at the time that his House counterpart, Rep. Neil Abramson, “is the person I trust least.”
They eventually met and the measure was approved, but not until after a lot of angry words were spoken.
Term limits — requiring representatives and senators to step down after 12 years to make way for new lawmakers — were billed by supporters as a way to create a Legislature that would be more responsive to voters and allow for thinking “outside the box” to solve nagging governmental problems.
But term limits also sapped legislators of historical knowledge, hardened political positions, and undermined the relationships that are essential ingredients to actually operating the machinery of government, some lawmakers, lobbyists and political operatives say.
Those faults were plain for all to see during the three meetings of the Louisiana Legislature that began on Valentine’s Day and went virtually nonstop until Public Service Day on June 23.
Louisiana lawmakers, the vast majority of whom were elected after term limits took full effect in 2007, faced pressure to quickly fill a $2 billion gap between promised services and the money available to pay for them.
Just how to do that was marked by frustration.
Senate President John Alario, at one point, was near tears at the inability to get anything accomplished. Gov. John Bel Edwards lashed out at legislators who refused to vote for tax increases or offer any alternative plans to cut spending.
There was a last-minute frenzy in which legislators approved about $1 billion in taxes in bills they hadn’t read and which contained a multitude of unintended consequences, such as overturning a key component in an incentive package crafted nearly a decade ago to ensure that New Orleans would continue to have a professional NFL football team.
In the end, after 19 weeks of acrimony, legislators were able to fix most of the mistakes and balance the budget before state government shut down.
“I can tell you with no uncertainty that term limits made a difference in the body,” said state Sen. Francis Thompson, who is one of the few legislators who can measure his time in decades, having served in the House and the Senate since 1975.
Thompson voted for term limits back in the 1990s, but now says it was a mistake.
“It takes a long time to learn how to make the process efficient,” the Delhi Democrat said.
At the insistence of Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, then representing parts of Metairie in the state House, Louisiana joined a growing public policy debate that began in California in 1990. Before 2000 — no state has adopted term limits since then — a total of 21 states limited the terms of their state legislators.
The laws were thrown out by the courts in four states, and two others repealed the measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, leaving Louisiana among the 15 state assemblies with term limits.
Beginning in 1996, the state constitution limited Louisiana lawmakers to three straight four-year terms in either the House or the Senate. As their time expires, they can go quietly, run for a seat in the other chamber or find another government job.
In 2007, that led to the largest turnover in the Louisiana Legislature since 1972, when the House and Senate went to single-member districts. It helped lead to the Republican dominance in state government.
The idea in Louisiana was to have senators and representatives more in tune with their constituents’ beliefs. It was argued, at the time, that legislators, knowing they would be around only for a specific amount of time, would make better decisions, freed from the politics that are part and parcel of politicians seeking to make a career out of lawmaking.
“I was a bit surprised,” said Alario. The Westwego Republican has been in the House and Senate since 1972 and watched the process unfold over the past 20 years.
“I thought people’s attitudes might change on some things, knowing full well they were term-limited. But I find legislators are still very much a reflection of their individual districts,” Alario said. “It is tougher to negotiate now because people get philosophically dug in on their position.”
Philosophical politics have replaced the art of the possible as the new group doesn’t always appreciate why things were done the way they were in the past and how seemingly minor changes in wording or punctuation impact legislation, he said.
“There’s a lack of history about these issues now that is almost scary,” said Jim Harris, a longtime lobbyist. “There were political and realistic reasons for those being the consensus decisions back in the day. And understanding that is the prelude for good legislating.”
Used to be, 25 years ago, people in the Legislature were there because they saw the House and the Senate as their avenue to access power and public service, said Roy Fletcher, the longtime political strategist who played a key part in Mike Foster’s election as governor.
“If it was important to them, then they worked toward a resolution. You don’t have that anymore,” Fletcher said.
Following terms limits came the reapportionment battle of 2011, during which district lines were redrawn to reflect changes in the 2010 Census. The new GOP majority basically made many of the districts stronger for their candidates by grouping, based on past election results, conservatives with conservatives and liberals with liberals. The result is districts in which constituents have focused views and legislators have no incentive to reach across party lines to effect compromise, Fletcher said.
“They lose if they cut a deal. If you’re Republican, you get called a RINO (Republican in Name Only). If you’re a Democrat, they call you a sell-out. So, where’s the return on making something work?” Fletcher said.
Sen. Thompson said issues have a lot of moving parts and require a legislator to study and come to a decision that maybe isn’t everything the district wants but covers what constituents need. Term limits removed that flexibility, he said.
“It takes awhile to learn to work with people and to understand the needs of New Orleans or the Acadiana area and to work out ways that can put together some of your needs with some of my needs,” Thompson said.
“All of that stuff about negotiations is poppycock,” countered Bernie Pinsonat, a veteran political pollster. Legislators reacted to polls that showed their constituents opposed new taxes, he said. That was the reason for the hesitancy that was at the heart of the acrimony.
“It’s not that they don’t know what’s going on at the State Capitol, it’s that they know what’s going on back home,” Pinsonat said.
Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, agreed.
As head of the House Republican caucus, Harris was in on most of the budget negotiations. He said the problem was that legislators were being asked to take tough votes that their constituents opposed, rather than a lack of technical knowledge about the process.
“We have lost some institutional knowledge, that’s true, but we also have ‘out of the box’ thinking to long-term problems that we didn’t have before,” he said, pointing to a plan to frontload TOPS to cover budget cuts so that families would have some time to come up with the money necessary to pay tuition costs that had borne by the state.
Like Alario and Thompson, Harris doesn’t see Louisiana overturning term limits anytime soon.
“There are pros and cons for both. I can see that. But for the most part the system we have right now works well,” he said.