On term limits and fire hoses

As the next Legislature approaches I find myself thinking of this hilarious scene in Weird Al Yankovic’s (underrated and classic) 80’s comedy movie “UHF.”

In the clip Michael Richards plays Stanley Spadowski, a dopey, wild-eyed janitor at a failing UHF television station who ends up hosting a children’s television game show. “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse” becomes a huge hit for obvious reasons.

This scene always reminds me of the Montana Legislature (and not necessarily because the Legislature kind of resembles Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse).

Every session you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear freshman legislators use the phrase “it’s like drinking from a fire hose” to describe their first couple months in office. Learning the process of passing laws, hammering out a budget, and guiding policy for the entire state during a four-month period is a lot to take in. The fire hose metaphor is apt.

This “fire hose” phenomenon is the primary reason most lawmakers lament term limits. I often heard legislators say: “right about the time you start figuring out what you’re doing you’re termed out.”

The public is strongly in favor of term limits, and for good reasons. They limit the power of incumbency and prevent lawmakers from becoming “career politicians.” They allow new — and oftentimes younger — people to enter public office where they inject new ideas into the policy making area.

But term limits also have their downsides, particularly in a state in which citizen legislators only meets for 90 days every two years. Some lawmakers argue the eight-year term limits don’t give lawmakers enough time to become experts on their committees. Some argue the term limits give the executive branch — which has full-time year-round staff, a full budget office and a Department of Revenue at its disposal — a huge advantage in the budget battles that ensue every two years.

It occurred to me recently that if journalists could be termed out (and I’m sure there are some who love that idea), then this would be my last session covering the Legislature.

I remember what it was like in 2009 when I covered my very first session gavel to gavel. In those first few weeks I fumbled around the capitol, sometimes getting lost on my way to committee rooms. I didn’t always know what issues or committee hearings were most important to readers, or how likely bills were to pass or fail.

I didn’t know what a junque file was (it’s all the notes and background files bill drafters use when drafting a bill).

It’s hard to imagine what the state’s legislative news coverage would look like if journalists were only allowed to stick around for eight years at time. No doubt we’d miss a lot of great and important stories!

So I guess in some regard I understand the arguments of those who would like to do away with, or at least modify, term limits. That said, I don’t think it’ll ever happen.

Voters in 1992 enshrined Montana’s term limits in our Constitution. The chances of them undoing it any time soon are slim-to-none.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t try, and they do almost every session.

Last session Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City, introduced a bill that would have asked voters to change the law to allow legislators to serve a total of 16 years in either the House or the Senate. The idea was that if lawmakers could serve up to eight 2-year terms in the House, or four 4-year terms in the Senate, then they would have more experience, knowledge and expertise dealing with complex issues, particularly the budget.

The bill died in conference committee.

Already this session there are three bill draft requests dealing with term limits sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats. The titles deal with both the Supreme Court and the Legislature, but the measures are in the drafting process and no text is available yet.

Whatever the proposals, I think it’s unlikely voters are eager to change term limits in Montana.

For the foreseeable future incoming lawmakers lucky enough to “find the marble in the oatmeal” might as well put on their cowboy hats, because like little Joel Miller, they’re about to start drinking from the fire hose.