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For almost one-third of Missouri Legislature, term limits means this session is their last

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2010 - In his last year as House Speaker, Rod Jetton didn't care about what went on in the Missouri House.

That wasn't a matter of opinion. The Republican from Marble Hill, Mo., openly admitted that his dwindling time in elected office -- forced by Missouri's legislative term limits -- reduced his interest in the affairs of state.

"This is one of those sessions for me where there's really not a whole lot going on, I don't really care about many bills right now anyway," said Jetton in 2008, in a videotaped response to a question about some legislators' last-minute efforts to get bills passed. "So if it all blew up and died, it's fine with me."

But Jetton's last-session attitude, and some actions seen as favoring his private consulting clients, rankled some fellow Republicans so much that it was reported some sought to oust him early as speaker.

Jetton's last-session antics may be an extreme example, but they are indicative of the reactions of some members of the Legislature as they approach the end of their tenure. Overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1992, the state's term limits restrict members of the Missouri House and Senate to no more than eight years in either chamber. (An exception is now allowed for partial terms prompted by special elections.)

In yet another example, the state's first and only woman speaker of the House -- Republican Catherine Hanaway -- acknowledged in 2003 that the specter of her own term limit was among the reasons she left the chamber early to pursue an unsuccessful 2004 bid for secretary state.

Term limits are casting a powerful shadow on the 2010 session getting underway. Sitting House Speaker Ron Richard, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields and House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, are among 62 members of the Legislature -- 52 in the House and 10 in the Senate -- who are beginning their last session because they can't seek re-election in November.

Republicans Bear Brunt Of 2010 Term Limits

This year's term-limited flock is the largest since 2002, when 87 legislators were forced to leave.

The early waves of term-limited legislators in 2000 and 2002 were predominantly Democrats, helping pave the way for the GOP's takeover of the state Senate in 2001 and the House in 2003.

This time, most of the outgoing members are Republicans: 35 in the House and eight in the Senate. Even so, the GOP edge is so large in both chambers that both sides see no chance of a Democratic takeover this year in the Senate, where Republicans hold 23 of the 34 seats.

The potential for Democrats isn't much better in the House, where the GOP controls 87 of the 163 seats. Democrats hold 72, and four are vacant.

Even so, the state's senior Republican -- U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo. -- blasted legislative term limits in a speech at last February's statewide Republican Lincoln Days gathering. Bond, a former governor, said term limits has "decimated'' the Legislature's leadership and needs to be scrapped.

But despite some supportive words at the time from Richard and other Republicans, no major challenge to Missouri's legislative term limits appears eminent.

Some of the current crop of outgoing legislators, including Richard, R-Joplin, already have launched a bid for another office. The speaker is seeking the Senate seat now held by fellow Republican Gary Nodler, who's term-limited.

Other soon-to-depart legislators, notably Senate leader Shields, R-St. Joseph, are planning to leave politics altogether.

Either way, nobody is sure how term limits will affect what issues are confronted by the Legislature this session, and which ones will be ignored.

Gov. Jay Nixon says he's aware of the hefty impact of term limits after this session, a key reason his administration has been focusing on "the seniors" in their last term.

"We've front-loaded all our meetings with seniors," Nixon said, adding that he's counting on those soon-to-leave veterans to help him advance his legislative agenda this year.

At the same time, the governor added, "I don't think term limits or the election year will be affecting key economic development proposals, or the budget."

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, "It's hard to say if members who are term-limited will feel freer in their votes, or if they will be calculating'' what stances will best advance their next career.

State Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, says she doesn't know what she will be doing after term limits forces her out at the end of this year. But she plans to spend her last session advancing some of the same causes -- such as equal pay for women -- that she has been pressing during her 18 years in the Legislature.

Still, during those years, Bray added that she's seen many term-limited legislators who "come in with an agenda'' for their final session, or engage in "a lot of pandering to special interests'' seen as potential future employers.

State Sen. Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, doesn't plan to be among them. "I think it would be disingenuous to change whatever I'm doing because this is my last year of being in the legislature," Days said. "I will be fighting for those things that are of importance to my constituents until the day I leave this body."  

Ditto for Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington. Although he acknowledged that among his term-limited colleagues, "there may be a slacker,'' the senator said that for himself, "I want to go out in a blaze of glory."

BIG WAVE SWEEPS THROUGH HOUSE

The sea change is even more noticeable in the Missouri House. Besides the 52 soon to be forced out, some lawmakers who still have more terms -- such as Reps. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City and Don Calloway, D-Bel Nor -- are considering leaving the House early to make runs for state Senate seats (Bray's and Days') opening up because of term limits.

Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-Olivette, nearly joined the swath of departing legislators when he contemplated jumping into the crowded Democratic pool of hopefuls seeking to succeed Bray.

The candidates include state Rep. Michael Corcoran, D-St. Ann, who is term-limited after this year.

Zimmerman decided against running for Bray's seat and will seek re-election to his House post instead. Zimmerman observed that the political backdrop of term limits can change the way outgoing legislators behave.

"People who are worried about the next gig always have different incentive structures,'' he said. Among Republicans, he asserted, "I think you see a lot of people catering to the Tea Party crowd and trying to cavort on that side of the aisle."

But state Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, said her philosophical zeal is real as she launches her challenge of a fellow Republican, state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville. Davis says she sees Rupp as too moderate.

Rupp says his conservative record is clear. But in any case, he said it's clear that term limits is playing a role in his primary contest, and others.

"A byproduct of term limits is a fast increase in primaries on both sides of the aisles,'' Rupp said. "It's commonplace and here to stay."

Davis acknowledged that the fact that this is her last allowed House term played a key role in her deliberations. "Would I have stayed in the House without term limits?'' she asked. "I probably would have."

However, Davis asserted that some politicians also use term limits as an excuse to discourage rivals. "Just because you can get three jugs of milk for $8 doesn't mean you should get all three,'' she said. "Term limits is not the same as a suggested amount of time to hold your office."

Not all term-limited House members are looking at the Senate as their next career move. For example, Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, and Rep. Jason Brown, R-Platte County, are running to be presiding commissioners in their local counties. Rep. Brian Yates, R-Lee's Summit, recently left his seat early to take a job at a payday loan company.

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, said that friction can occur when sitting lawmakers plan to run against each other in primaries. But he said other problems can arise with term limits as well.

"There's the natural problem of institutional memory," Connor said. "And that may be not as evident this cycle, but it will come into play (in 2011) when all the old people are replaced by new people. But I think that's just one of the natural thing about term limits."

The forced departures of Richard, LeVota and Shields are leaving both parties in both chambers with leadership voids. 

House Republicans already have picked Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, as their speaker-designee, while Democrats selected Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, as their next leader.

Tilley has begun to flex his political muscles as Richard splits his time between this last session and his quest for the state Senate.

There's also speculation that Richard -- who previously has had a testy relationship at times with his Senate GOP counterparts -- may be more conciliatory this session to foster a better relationship in case he's elected to the Senate this fall.

Richard said his imminent departure won't affect his commitment to listen to his "gut" to "do the right thing."

"If it's not right in my heart or my gut, I will not pursue it," Richard said.

In the Senate, outgoing leader Shields already has said he wants to use his last year to help lawmakers pursue long-term planning strategies. Shield said in an address Wednesday to the chamber that he wanted to move beyond typical arguments for or against term limits, and instead alter the discussion on "how to make government work best for Missourians in a term-limited environment."

"Simply put, our terms may be limited to eight years, but the way we think about our vision for Missouri's future should never be limited," Shields said.

Shields said he believed that the 10 senators who are term-limited remain committed to "making government work."

"I think everybody's going to be engaged and stay involved in the process," Shields said. "I also think they realize that creating this process of long-term planning and of how to transcend term limits is important. And that could be the greatest work those of us who are leaving this year can leave the state with."

The only top Senate leader who will remain in the chamber next year -- Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence -- said Shields' goal may be difficult to accomplish.

But Callahan, who will serve through 2012, doesn't entirely blame term limits. "There used to be people in the past, even before term limits, who would just go off the reservation and say 'I don't care,'" he said.

"We'll survive. I think ultimately, people's motives ... ultimately become apparent. And if somebody's just doing that because it's their last term or it's their last week in the Senate, that kind of becomes obvious to all their colleagues."

CHANGE THE CONSTITUTION

For more than a decade, some affected legislators -- first Democrats, now Republicans -- have sought to revise the state's term limits. So far, such proposals have gone nowhere.

One of the latest attempts is by outgoing state Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff. He has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to allow legislators to serve 16 years in one or both chambers. Under his proposal, a lawmaker could spend 12 years in the House and four years in the Senate, or vice versa. Or an individual could spend all 16 years in the Senate or the House.

Richard said last winter that he was interested in Kingery's proposal. Still, even Kingery acknowledges that GOP leaders appear reluctant to allow the Legislature to vote on it.

Kingery blames "feedback from the national level,'' where national term-limit groups are lobbying against any changes.

Davis predicts no action this year from the Legislature to change Missouri's term limits. Among other things, she said, "I don't think the public has any appetite for doing that."

Term-limited senators from the area
NamePartyHometown
Sen. Joan BrayDUniversity City
Sen. Rita DaysDBel Nor
Sen. John GriesheimerRWashington
Term-limited representatives from the area
Rep. Joe SmithRSt. Charles
Rep. Cynthia DavisRO’Fallon
Rep. Michael VogtDSt. Louis
Rep. Gina WalshDSt. Louis
Rep. Michael SprengDFlorissant
Rep. Michael CorcoranDSt. Ann
Rep. Albert LieseDMaryland Heights
Rep. Ted HoskinsDBerkeley
House Budget Chairman Allen IcetRWildwood
Rep. Patricia YaegerDSt. Louis
Rep. Walt BivinsRSt. Louis
Rep. Brian NievesRWashington
Rep. Mike SutherlandRWarrenton
Rep. Sue SchoemehlDSt. Louis
Rep. Belinda HarrisDHillsboro

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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