Did term limits really change how long Oklahoma legislators serve?

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by July 16th, 2014 Posted in ,

Gene Stipe, who served 53 years in the Oklahoma Legislature (1948-54, 1956-2003)

In September 1990, Oklahoma voters, by an overwhelming margin, approved State Question 632 which limited service in the Oklahoma legislature to no more than twelve years in the House of Representatives and Senate combined. The new term limits took effect in 2002 and did not apply to time already served. The first group of legislators subject to SQ 632 hit their term limits in 2004 (for House members and Senators elected in 1992) and in 2006 (for Senators elected in 1994).

Oklahoma political observers are in near unanimous agreement that term limits have had profound and far-ranging effects on the Oklahoma legislature. In the view of many journalists, legislative and agency staffers, and lobbyists, today’s legislators are significantly less experienced than were their predecessors. Short legislative careers are taken to mean that legislators are less familiar with policy issues, agency operations, public finances, and the legislative process itself.  With less time to rise through the ranks to leadership, term-limited legislators are often seen as more overtly ambitious and more beholden to lobbyists than in pre-term limit days. 

Yet is it really the case that term limits have brought about the sweeping changes that are often attributed to them? In particular, is the popular image of term limits replacing a legislature dominated by wizened – and perhaps corrupt – career politicians with one composed of political neophytes an accurate one? Preliminary analysis of historical data on legislative service suggests that’s not quite the case.

To explore the impact of term limits, OK Policy has begun to collect and analyze data on the years of service of Oklahoma legislators. Using historical information from the Oklahoma Almanac, a publication of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, our summer intern Tyler Parette has compiled data on legislators who held office in selected years going back to 1978. Proceeding in six-year intervals, for each year in the series we determined how many years each legislator had served up to and including that year (a legislator first elected in November 1974 would be counted as having served 4 years in 1978, for example). 

Two trends are especially notable from the data presented in Figure 1:

(1) Prior to term limits, there was substantial legislative turnover. In 2014, the average legislator had served 6.62 years, which is only slightly less than the average experience for legislators prior to the passage of term limits, 6.86 years. While the average Senator had about two years less experience in 2014 than in 1990 (6.54 years versus 8.38 years), the average House member today has actually served longer than his or her counterpart in 1990 (6.65 years versus 6.14 years). Prior to voter approval of term limits in 1990, legislative tenure was actually decreasing, with the average length of service in 1990 having declined in both the House and Senate compared to 1978 and 1984.

(2) Enactment of term limits seemed to encourage legislators to stay in office longer. After voters approved term limits in 1990 and the clock began ticking for incumbents, many more of them decided to stay in office as long as they were allowed. By 2002, two or four years before term limits kicked in for those in office in 1992, average experience had soared to 10.86 years overall (9.08 years for House members, 14.60 years for Senators), as legislators apparently decided to hang on to their seats as long as they were allowed. However, the fact that during this period Democrats were at risk of losing control of the legislature might also have encouraged some incumbents to stay in office longer than they otherwise would have, even in the absence of impending term limits.

Figure 2 presents the data for legislators’ length of service for the same years as medians rather than averages. Again we see that, prior to term limits, most legislators had served few terms in the legislature, with median service up to the selected years being 2 or 3 terms in the House and 1 or 2 terms in the Senate. In 1990, more than half of all legislators (54 House members, 22 Senators) had four years or less of service. By contrast,  just 18 legislators (12 percent) – 11 Senators and 8 House members – had served longer than 12 years. Of course, one of those veterans, Gene Stipe, had already served 40 years, on his way to establishing a never-to-be-broken record of 53 total years in the legislature. By 2002, there were 48 legislators (32 percent) – 26 Senators and 22 House members – with more than 12 years of service. In 2014, while there were no legislators with more than 12 years service, median experience was greater than before term limits for House members and comparable for Senators.

 This research should serve as a useful starting point for further investigation.  In particular, while we are confident that our choice of selecting legislatures in six-year intervals reveals genuine trends, it would be worth filling in the missing years and going back earlier than 1978. It would be worth comparing the length of experience of legislators in leadership positions to see how that’s changed over time. Now that we are seeing more legislators choosing to leave office voluntarily prior to their time being up, it would also be worth comparing over time why and how legislators left office – whether due to electoral defeat, choosing to retire, or term limits. Finally, this quantitative data on legislative experience can’t answer important questions of how term limits have altered the ways legislators approach their job and perform their responsibilities, for which interviews and other methods are needed.  

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