In the early 1990s, the same wave that swept the Democrats from office and ushered in Newt Gingrich and the Republicans also brought us a host of reform initiatives intent on restoring the public’s faith in government.
In Nevada, they came in the form of two questions that would change our state’s constitution. The first limited campaign contributions from donors to a maximum of $5,000 for the primary election and $5,000 for the general election. Before this question passed, individuals and corporations could give up to $20,000 to a candidate and were under no primary or general restrictions.
The second question was limiting elected official’s terms. The mood of the country was very much against incumbency, and even though this question did nothing to limit the terms of federal office holders – it gave them some way to complain against politicians in general.
Both referendums passed overwhelmingly twice, making them the law of the land. The term limits provision gave state and local office holders a maximum of 12 years, which generally started with the 1998 election.
The basic idea behind term limits was to stop elected officials from keeping control of government. Incumbents are extremely powerful, and can raise enough money that they almost never have to worry about losing an election. Without the fear of being voted out of office, the incumbent theoretically would put the public’s business aside and line their own pockets, or that of fat-cat lobbyists.
At least that was the theory. In reality, however, even before term limits went into effect, the public started voting crooked incumbents out of office. Even though they had in some cases 10 times the campaign war chest of their lowly opponents, multi-term elected leaders started losing at an alarming rate.
The 1999 Nevada Legislature will be an interesting case study in just how term limits will affect our state’s future. For numerous elected officials, including Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, it will be their last session due to the constitutional change. Will these legislators be less likely to listen to voter’s concerns because they have absolutely nothing to lose (unless they have aspirations for another political office)? Sure, it’s only for one session, but much can happen in that time frame.
In addition, will our state face a dearth of talented elected leaders? It’s already an amazingly difficult proposition to find a candidate who wants to go to Carson City every other year. If good, quality leaders are forced to get out of politics because of term limits, what will we be left with?
There has been talk of trying to overturn term limits on a technicality. In order to change our state constitution, a referendum must pass with exactly the same language on two consecutive ballots.
There’s no chance the voters will ever change their mind and repeal term limits. There is a chance, that the courts might reverse the decision. Voters and politicians alike will be watching very closely over the next two years.