Unintended consequences

Term limits and Amendment 41

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Was the 2010 General Assembly the most contentious session in recent memory? That’s the opinion of some capitol regulars who watched in awe as lawmakers battled more acrimoniously than usual throughout the session over repealing tax exemptions and credits, the state budget, education reform, upcoming elections and redistricting.

A report issued in June by one of the capitol’s long-time lobbying groups, Tomlinson Associates, said “the combined tsunami effect of term limits, budget crisis, one-party control of the Executive and Legislative branches of government, fall elections and future redistricting of legislative districts based on the 2010 census created possibly the most contentious session in memory.”

Veteran lawmakers also viewed this year’s session as more contentious than some. Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, is at the end of his 10th year at the capitol with eight years in the House and two years in the Senate. He said recently that the session had been politically contentious as any session in an election year, and maybe more so, in part he said because Gov. Bill Ritter chose not to run for re-election and that political winds are shifting from Democrats to Republicans. Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, a 12-year capitol veteran, said that whether the 2010 session was more heated than others is a matter of legislator perspective. Some have said this was the worst session ever, Spence acknowledged, but she said that in an intense 120-day session, by Day 115 “sometimes there seems to be an inordinate amount of stress.”

John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University and a long-time capitol observer, said that for sheer nastiness, the redistricting fight in 2003 comes in at number one. But for an entire legislative session, “if this year’s not number one it’s pretty close, in terms of partisan division and unpleasantness.”

Lawmakers and capitol observers point to a number of factors that have led to an overall decline in civility at the General Assembly, with 2010 a high-water mark for some.

As cited by the Tomlinson report, term limits have played a big role in the way legislators get along with each other. Straayer is working on a new book on Colorado politics, and recently analyzed the number of years spent by legislators at the capitol. For 1997, Straayer said that for all 65 members of the House the cumulative number of years was 269; in 2009 it had dropped to 154 years.

Straayer said that prior to term limits, prospective legislators would have tough races to get to the capitol. But once they were there, they got to know each other across the aisle, and some of the partisan edges would fall away. “Term limits have done damage by making that less possible,” Straayer said.

But the type of legislator coming to the state capitol is changing, too, and that’s also a result of term limits, Straayer said. Nationally, politics have become more divisive, and the name of the game is now opposition research and negative campaigning, with constant attacks. “Term limits have opened the door for more folks to come in who wouldn’t have had a chance [prior to the passage of term limits],” Straayer explained. “It’s opening the door for politically ambitious people to come in, and for some of them the name of the game is to look for the next political move — ‘where can I go next.’ A lot of the rhetoric in the well [of the House or Senate] is around political self-promotion,” he said. In the short-term, “I don’t see any reversal.”

Term limits have also led to much shorter experience for legislative leadership, Straayer explained. “Leadership is weaker and discipline is driven” by the need by a caucus to stick together on issues, he said. For example, prior to term limits a person could serve as Speaker of the House or Senate President for eight or ten years. In the past decade, the longest term for any leader was four years, and that was Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver; for most it’s two years.

The lack of long-time leadership has led to different behavior by new legislators. Before term limits, “you didn’t have new legislators coming into the place and running whatever legislation they wanted or push ideology. Leaders didn’t put up with it,” Straayer said. New legislators would spend a year or two or three getting to learn the norms, statutes, to get a handle on policy and procedure, and to get to know each other. Today, “the day you walk in, everyone’s a big player. That’s made the process messier.”

Long-time lawmaker Norma Anderson, who served in the Legislature for 20 years, said that when she was elected to the House in 1986, “we were more like a family. You had people who had been there a long time and could help you with the process, the rules, and the decorum. That’s gone,” Anderson said.

But there’s also a new factor in the mix that has contributed to the decline in relationships at the capitol: the passage of Amendment 41 in 2006. Straayer said that while term limits started the decline, Amendment 41 has “punctuated it.”

Under the law, as interpreted by the Independent Ethics Commission in 2009, professionally lobbyists are prohibited from giving anything of value to public officials, public employees or their immediate families or to groups of public officials or employees. The commission wrote in the 2009 position statement that the prohibition is absolute and not subject to the $50 gift threshold outlined in the amendment. “The language [of the amendment] is so clear that it would be difficult to argue that voters intended otherwise,” the commission wrote. The prohibition does not apply to political campaign contributions, and it also does not apply to groups represented by lobbyists; in those situations the $50 limit does apply.

White said that prior to the passage of Amendment 41 legislators would get together at the end of the day, sometimes finding themselves at a local watering hole where “we would have a few drinks and tell war stories.” These gatherings took place both within the caucus and across the aisle, White said. “We put the business of the day behind us and the difficulties of various positions and issues would go by the wayside. People would become who they are instead of who they represent.”

What Amendment 41 did was to take away the people who paid for those gatherings. When legislators gather, oftentimes a lobbyist would pick up the tab. White said that on the meager salary legislators make ($30,000 per year), “we can’t afford to do that.”

As a result, “the collegiality that used to exist no longer exists,” White said. “We don’t know each other even middling-well.”

Spence agrees. “We don’t spend the time with each other that we did before 41,” she told The Colorado Statesman. Women legislators have an opportunity get together through the women’s caucus in the House and Senate, she said, but other than that “we don’t have a chance to socialize away from work.”

Anderson says Amendment 41 has not only destroyed the “social atmosphere” for legislators but has also resulted in changed behavior by lobbyists. The law has made the lobbying corps less friendly and “more obnoxious. It’s a different attitude,” she told The Statesman. Legislators used to have complete control over the behavior of lobbyists, she explained; a lobbyist could be kicked out for lying to a legislator. That’s doesn’t happen anymore — “if a lobbyist lies to a legislator, who cares?”

But despite the problems with lobbyists, where Amendment 41 has hurt most is their sponsorship of events, she said. “We would go to functions [sponsored by lobbyists or their organizations] after we finished, and would ‘graze’ at receptions or buffets” and even dances. “You could socialize” with them, the corporations they represented and other legislators, and while the lobbyists footed the bill, “it didn’t mean you’d support [their legislation]. You became friends and knew both sides of an issue, and they knew which legislators supported them. Everyone came [to these events] whether you got along with [the lobbyist] or not.”

While Straayer sees little chance for change, those who supported Amendment 41 think legislators ought to learn how to bond with each other the way other Coloradans do in their workplace environments, instead of relying on events sponsored by lobbyists. Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Common Cause, told The Statesman that “a collegial work environment doesn’t require free lunches or cocktail parties at the end of the day.” If legislators want to bond, she said, nothing in Amendment 41 prohibits them from going out together on their own tab. “It doesn’t seem to us that free lunches and meals from lobbyists are a prerequisite for relationship-building at the state capitol.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com