There has been an ongoing debate about implementing term limits for state legislators in Illinois. Some pundits even argue that if term limits were instituted years ago, it could have prevented some of the budgetary problems now facing the state. While a noble idea, I do not support adopting term limits for legislators in Illinois because we already have them. They are called elections.
In the Illinois House, representatives are up for election every two years. Many times, legislators face not only a challenger in the general election in November, but also a primary opponent in mid-March. The bedrock of our democracy is allowing citizens the right to vote for a candidate whom they believe represents their values and whom they feel will do the best job. It is unlikely that legislators who are not active in their districts, fail to stay accessible to their constituents and support bad public policy will stay in office. However, term limits would force not only bad legislators, but also hardworking and quality representatives out of office after a fixed number of years.
Many legislators on both sides of the aisle, some who have served in the General Assembly for several terms, remain in office because they provide quality constituent services to residents, represent their districts well and they work hard. Historical knowledge of the laws and the institution are important. A combination of new and more senior legislators provides a mix of fresh ideas and historical knowledge. This mix is positive. For the sake of comparison, a school district will make every attempt to retain quality teachers because children benefit – and, in turn, the whole community benefits. The same can be true for quality legislators who are reelected by the voters in their district. In addition, a majority of states in the U.S. do not have term limits. In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 15 states currently limit the number of terms legislators can serve.
Another argument made in favor of term limits is that it would lead to more turnover of elected officials and bring in new, fresh ideas. Again, in Illinois, with elections every two years, plenty of turnover exists. The 2012 election alone brought many new faces to the Illinois General Assembly in 2013, when new legislators were sworn into office. According to the Council of State Governments – Midwest, there are 42 new members in the Illinois General Assembly this year, representing a turnover rate of 23.7 percent, higher than that of several nearby states including Indiana (19.3 percent), Michigan (18.9 percent), Ohio (14.4 percent) and Wisconsin (22.7 percent). Looking back farther, only 58 out of the 118 current House members were in office at the end of 2008, meaning that a majority of them have served for less than five years.
Another aspect of term limits is that it results in bureaucrats – not elected officials – possessing the historical long-term knowledge of laws and processes. The ability for elected officials, who must answer to the voters, to work together to solve complex public policy issues, such as pension reform, is diminished when there are only new legislators who do not fully understand the lawmaking process.
That is one of the consequences that has occurred in Missouri since its term limit law took effect. With the influx of freshmen legislators, Missouri lost a considerable amount of institutional knowledge. Now, in some cases, lobbyists have more knowledge than rank-and-file legislators. It makes more sense to have that knowledge remain with legislators, who are directly elected by the public, rather than to further empower bureaucrats, lobbyists and other insiders.
Clearly, many challenges remain for current and future legislators. However, term limits will not improve or solve these issues. Electing good, honest legislators who are willing to make the tough choices to improve the fiscal condition of Illinois will improve our state. The power to do that lies in every voter across Illinois, and that’s where it should remain.
State Rep. Jay Hoffman is a Democrat serving Illinois’ 113th District.