By PHIL DRAKE
HELENA – A state panel on Monday held hearings on two bills that would either repeal or ask voters to tweak term limits for state senators and representatives, with its sponsors saying the current system has made the Legislative branch of the government the weakest when it should be the strongest.
Opponents, however, opposed the proposed legislation, saying the current system reflects a more citizen Legislature rather than a chamber filled with “professional politicians.”
The House State Administration Committee heard testimony regarding HB 404 and HB 418. The committee took no vote Monday but heard from people for and against the bills.
Both bills would have to be approved by voters and were proposed to be on the November 2012 ballot.
“This is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, pictured at left, who sponsored HB 404. She said she drafted the bill after hearing from constituents that the state Legislature operated in relative weakness to the other branches of government.
She said the way it is set up now lawmakers four 90-day terms “and then you’re fired.”
“That gives us a weak foothold in our position of government,” she said. “The governor has eight years to sell and form a vision for Montana, the Legislature does not.”
Hansen said Montana would never again have a four-term speaker of the House.
According to the Secretary of State’s website, Montanans passed a constitutional initiative in 1992 setting term limits for all statewide elected offices and Congress. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the limits on Congress, saying states did not have the constitutional authority to regulate the tenure of federal legislators. Public officials are prohibited from seeking re-election if they have already held the office for eight years in any 16-year period.
The League of Women Voters of Montana supported Hansen’s bill.
Spokeswoman Gladys Hardin told the committee the League had a long-time position in favor of repealing term limits. She said studies have shown that term limits bring about higher turnover in the Legislature, forces lawmakers not to look for long-term solutions and brings about a general deterioration of the lawmaking process.
“The Legislature is a weaker institution because of term limits,” she said. “ The League of Women Voters believes it is a fundamental right of voters to elect their representatitves.”
Dallas Erickson of Montana Citizens for Decency through Law, said Montana “already has term limits and they’re called ‘elections.’ I think that’s what we need to go back to.”
But William H. Biernat, the executive director of Montanans in Action, opposed the bill.
“I strongly believe we should have a citizen Legislature and not professional politicians,” he said.
When asked later if having the internet and TV has made government more apparent, Biernat said he has an e-mail list of 1,500 people and can bypass the “broken-down excuse for news media in Montana.”
He noted that most of the proponents of the bill were lobbyists, “it’s real cozy,” he said.
Resident Cindy Swank said term limits were passed to discourage incumbent abuses and bring more public sector experience to office.
Rep. Champ Edmonds, R-Missoula, also discussed his term limit bill, HB 418. The bill allows lawmakers to serve 12 or more years as a representative or senator in a 24-year period.
Hardin said she did not opposed Edmonds bill but said if the League of Women Voters were to spend money on a statewide referendum it would be for Hansen’s bill.