(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) The November 2010 general election is more than a year away, but a political shift is already in motion as term limits take effect and 17 veteran lawmakers must either leave the Legislature or set their sights on other elective office.
The potential departure of more than a quarter of the state’s 63 lawmakers, some with dozens of years of political experience, could have significant ramifications for the citizens of Nevada.
But the reaction to term limits taking effect in Nevada – more than a decade after they were approved by voters – is mixed.
Supporters suggest that forcing out long-serving lawmakers will bring in fresh blood and new ideas. Term limits will also provide opportunity for newcomers seeking legislative office as a large number of seats will have no incumbents to challenge.
Critics are concerned that the loss of institutional knowledge when veteran lawmakers leave office may weaken the legislative branch of government. The fear is that lobbyists and bureaucrats will become more powerful as newly elected lawmakers quickly try to grasp the intricacies of the budget process and master complex policy issues.
Janine Hansen, a citizen lobbyist at the Legislature since 1971, said she did not support term limits at the ballot box but is excited about the possibilities now that so many lawmakers will be leaving office next year.
“Our founding fathers did not believe in serving endless years in a legislative body,” she said. “Lawmakers are in power too long and the power goes to their heads. They think it is their Legislature and their state rather than responding to the people.”
Hansen, a member of Nevada’s Independent American Party, said term limits may also create opportunities for third-party candidates.
“It is going to be a wonderful year for non-incumbents,” she said. “It will be unprecedented.”
Jan Gilbert, a citizen lobbyist for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said she is concerned about the loss of veteran lawmakers because of their knowledge of the issues.
“I do believe it will give lobbyists and staff more power,” she said. “New people can be easily misled. They have to trust that what they hear is true.”
The impending loss of veteran lawmakers such as Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, who has extensive knowledge about commerce issues and renewable energy policies, will leave a large void that will be difficult to fill, Gilbert said.
One potential effect of term limits may be a move by groups to use the initiative petition process to get their issues to the voters, she said. If gridlock ensues because there are so many new legislators, it may become a more attractive option for special interest groups, Gilbert said.
One effect is for certain. Many lawmakers forced out by term limits will set their sights on other elective office, creating a new dynamic for office seekers, he said.
With seven state senate seats being vacated in 2010, a number of opportunities will be available for members of the Assembly to move into the upper house. But it is also possible that members of the Senate may eye an Assembly seat or some other elective office.
Nevada’s longest-serving lawmaker, Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, does believe the loss of institutional knowledge of veteran lawmakers will be a negative consequence of term limits. First elected to the Senate in 1972, Raggio is in the middle of what will be his final term.
“The weaker the institutional knowledge of legislators, obviously the more influence lobbyists have,” he said. “The more influence bureaucrats have.”
Raggio said he knows the reasons why various policy decisions were made by the Legislature in the 1970s and 1980s, reasons that will soon be forgotten as long-serving lawmakers are forced to leave office. Many of them will be hard to replace, he said.
Voters put their final stamp of approval on term limits in 1996, amending the state constitution to limit lawmakers to no more than 12 consecutive years in any one political office. But the 12-year clock only started ticking with lawmakers elected in 1998, making 2010 the first year for term limits to kick in. Term limits are also in effect for many local elected officials, the governor and other state constitutional officers.
Jim Wadhams, a lobbyist for more than three decades with a long list of clients, said getting outstanding candidates who can learn the issues quickly will be critical if the Legislature is to handle all of its challenges under term limits.
Term limits are taking effect just as the important processes of redistricting and reapportionment, where new boundaries are drawn for legislators and members of Congress, must be addressed, he said. Add to this complex issue the budget deficit facing the state in 2011, and there is no question but that this will be one of the most challenging sessions in decades, Wadhams said.
Leadership in both the Senate and Assembly will face enormous pressure to get the work done in the 120-day time limit set by the voters for legislative sessions, he said.
Wadhams said that while it may be true that lobbyists will have more power because of their knowledge of the legislative process, new lawmakers are more likely to rely on their own legislative staff for guidance rather than the capitol lobbying corps. Wadhams also noted that most of the Legislative staff live in Northern Nevada, far from the challenges and issues facing Las Vegas.
“It’s too soon to say whether term limits are good or bad,” he said. “There are probably elements that mix both ways. But new lawmakers will have to pay attention. They won’t have two or three sessions to settle in.”
Lawmakers Termed Out in 2010
Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City
Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas
Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas
Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas
Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno
Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno
Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks
Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks
Assemblyman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas
Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas
Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko
Assemblyman Jerry Claborn, D-Las Vegas
Assemblywoman Ellen Koivisto, D-Las Vegas
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno
Assemblyman Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas
Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas
Assemblyman Harry Mortenson, D-Las Vegas