With term limits for legislative members, we have to make do

Change is in the air at the Colorado State Capitol, I can feel it. We’re just short of the halfway mark, that is, if we go the full 120 days of the session. We still have the two biggest bills of each session to grapple with, and those are the annual budget bill and the school-finance bill. Work has been going on behind the scenes on both of these, but only by a small number of legislators.

Even with these major pieces of legislation yet to come, legislators’ attention spans are beginning to be fragmented.

This week marks the official start of the 2014 political season with party caucuses being held statewide, soon to be followed by county, district and state assemblies.

One notable fact in this election cycle is there are many state legislators – former and currently serving – running as candidates for federal office. With luck, any Colorado state legislator who successfully makes that transition to federal office after next November won’t fall victim to the dreaded Potomac Fever and will continue to stand strong for the principle that states can and do govern most policy issues best.

State legislators often commiserate about how former colleagues get to Washington, D.C., only to forget the states must balance their budgets, and unfunded mandates are an irresponsible way to govern from the federal level.

At the end of this year, a large number of Colorado legislators – in the House and Senate – reach their term limits. Each legislator can serve up to eight years in a chamber. They can run for a seat in the other chamber for an additional eight years.

While I’ve not yet hit my term limit in the Senate, I’ve served with a number of good people who aren’t eligible to run again.

One advantage to term limits is they allow newcomers a better chance to get elected in the resulting open seat.

However, term limits also leave in their wake a vacuum of legislator knowledge and experience.

For example, on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee I’m a member of, four of seven committee members are term-limited. They include two Republicans and two Democrats, among them the committee chairwoman.

I’ve no doubt there will be others who are eager to take their places.

Yet, the loss of their institutional knowledge of committee issues and past legislative efforts will be significant.

I’ve watched the turnover take place during the past eight years with the advent of term limits having full effect – meaning no legislator has served in a chamber for more than six years.

With this change from the “old days” when some legislators served for decades, there’s been a corresponding shift of greater power to bureaucrats and lobbyists who last much longer in their jobs than the legislators.

Given the general public distaste and mistrust of politicians, I don’t see a move away from term limits, so we’ll need to adapt to the loss of knowledge and experience and be vigilant to protect the legislative branch’s proper role in state government.

Even with the increased distraction of political-campaign season advancing, the legislative process must go on for us to be able to wrap up the session on time.

Bills going through the House and surviving are now arriving in the Senate for committee hearings and floor debate.

Ellen Roberts represents Senate District 6 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Montrose, San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. Contact her by phone at (303) 866-4884 or by email at ellen.roberts.senate@state.co.us.

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