Democrat Tom Collins’ recent resignation and Assembly Minority Leader Marilyn Kirkpatrick’s appointment to succeed him not only meant a controversial good ol’ boy gave way to a policy wonk, but that women are now a majority on the Clark County Commission. The change also signified the futility and stupidity of constitutionally mandated term limits.
In his last re-election in 2012, Collins received more than 55 percent of the vote in a three-way race. In hers, in 2014, Kirkpatrick won just less than 60 percent amid a Democratic bloodbath. Whether they would have done that well in 2016, or better, we cannot know, because the voters in their districts don’t get to make that choice for themselves.
By 2016, Collins would have completed three terms on the County Commission and couldn’t run for re-election. Neither could Kirkpatrick, who was wrapping up her sixth term in the state Assembly. She could have run for the state Senate, but she would have been challenging an incumbent fellow Democrat. Attracting several previous term-limited lawmakers, a County Commission seat offers the prospect of continuing to serve and have influence, to be able to do it without leaving home for four months every two years (and to only put up with sometimes-strange public comment periods instead of consistently strange Michele Fiore.)
But what if voters wanted to keep Collins and Kirkpatrick where they’ve served for more than a decade, and the two of them wanted to stay in those positions? What if you’re pleased with your legislator or commissioner? The answer is: Too bad. The calendar now mandates that they have to leave that office, ready or not (as in, whether or not they’re ready, and whether or not you’re ready).
Nevada’s voters approved a constitutional amendment to impose term limits in 1994 and 1996. The second time, the margin of victory was smaller than the first, but it still was significant enough to make clear that the issue was a popular one. The architect of the term limits amendment was political überconsultant/guru/operative Sig Rogich. The arguments were clear (if wrong): Professional politicians are bad. Never mind that you don’t get rid of doctors, mechanics and teachers because they happen to have a lot of experience; you get rid of them when they become incompetent or you don’t like them anymore.
And legislative term limits in particular have proven disastrous. Without the experience and institutional memory of longtime legislators, more power goes to unelected staff, who generally perform capably and tirelessly, and lobbyists. While lobbyists can be incredibly smart and useful, therein lies an obvious contradiction: If you don’t like career politicians, why cede power to career political backroom operators?
Ah, you say, but nobody seems to be demanding that we repeal the U.S. constitutional amendment limiting the president to two terms, or a similar one in Nevada that bars the governor from serving more than 10 years. Well, we should get rid of those, too, but either way, we’re comparing apples and oranges. A president and a governor are more like individual operators, not part of legislative bodies, with the singular ability to say yes or no. Also, Nevada’s greatest governor, Grant Sawyer, made an important point that could be applied to any president: “A governor never really makes any new friends: At the start everybody is your friend, but every day, by purpose or by accident, you make somebody mad, and it has a cumulative effect—eventually your enemies outnumber your friends.” Sawyer would know—he sought a third term and lost.
Simply put, term limits have existed in the U.S. from the beginning. We exercise them at the ballot box. Thanks to a constitutional amendment, Nevadans deprived themselves of political power. That probably won’t change anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we should quit pointing out how wrong and unwise term limits are.
Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.