Legislative term limits punish success, rob voters of power

Ballot question would limit legislators to a lifetime total of 16 years in office

June 27, 2023 3:57 pm
Legislators mingle on the House floor ahead of the governor's budget address on Dec. 6, 2022, at the Capitol in Pierre. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Legislators mingle on the House floor ahead of the governor’s budget address on Dec. 6, 2022, at the Capitol in Pierre. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

State Sen. Brent Hoffman would be pleased if, in the next election, voters would tell him that his days in the Legislature are numbered. Hoffman, a Republican from Sioux Falls, is the moving force behind an initiated constitutional amendment that would set term limits for state legislators at eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate. After serving 16 years — eight two-year terms — a lawmaker would be sent home for good.

To get the amendment on the ballot, Hoffman must collect upwards of 35,000 signatures. It’s likely he’ll succeed. Citizens will see “term limits” at the top of the petition and readily sign. Term limits, after all, are supposed to be a good thing.

Originally Hoffman didn’t want to go the route of standing on the corner long enough to collect 35,000 signatures. That’s why he sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 504 during the last legislative session. If endorsed by the Legislature, Hoffman’s attempt to mess with term limits would have been placed directly on the ballot.

During testimony to the Senate State Affairs Committee, Hoffman encouraged his colleagues to be different from other state legislatures which have never endorsed term limits. States that currently have limit terms, he told them, could implement those restrictions because their citizens were able to put the measure on the ballot. According to Hoffman, those term limit ballot measures have always succeeded.

The Senate State Affairs Committee decided to err on the side of legislative tradition, defeating Hoffman’s resolution on an 8-1 vote. The lone Democrat on the committee voted to kill the bill even though he said that making popular Republicans eventually unable to run for reelection would be good for his party.

The legislators on that committee, like all South Dakota legislators, are already dealing with term limits. In this state lawmakers are limited to four two-year terms in either chamber. When they reach that limit they can take a break before running again, or run for a seat in the other chamber.

That’s been happening in the South Dakota Legislature since the current system was approved by voters in 1992. Lawmakers have been ping-ponging back and forth between chambers for years. Some of them even have more than the Hoffman-mandated 16 years of service.

Part of Hoffman’s pitch to the Senate State Affairs Committee and likely part of his reasoning to get you to sign his petition, is that term limits are popular with voters. While he was vague about who was being polled and what the question was, Hoffman told the committee that voters give term limits their endorsement 60% to 80% of the time. What they are probably endorsing, in those polls, is the notion that the members of Congress are in dire need of term limits. Whether more stringent limits are needed in the South Dakota Legislature is a subject for debate.

Artificially limiting that pool of candidates by kicking seasoned, veteran lawmakers out of office is not the way to ensure good government.

Term limit backers like Hoffman see incumbency as a bludgeon that can be used against election opponents. They conveniently ignore the reality that reelection to office is a concrete sign that voters are happy with their representation.

One member of the Senate State Affairs Committee quizzed Hoffman about term limits for lobbyists or cabinet secretaries or department heads. Of course there are none, leaving them to act as the institutional memory for the Legislature. That way they can tell new lawmakers “this is the way we’ve always done it” when what they really mean is “this is the way to do it that will help my department/constituency.”

There are only so many people in the state who love policy-making enough to leave their families and businesses to spend the winter commuting back and forth to Pierre. Artificially limiting that pool of candidates by kicking seasoned, veteran lawmakers out of office is not the way to ensure good government.

Voters have always held the key to limiting the terms of legislators. Hoffman’s amendment takes that power away from voters, preferring to let the rules rather than the voting public have a say in who represents them in Pierre.

Let’s hope that those voters look past the “term limits” heading on Hoffman’s petition and consider the ramifications of giving bureaucrats and lobbyists the upper hand over a body that’s supposed to be doing the people’s business. Good candidates are hard to find. We shouldn’t be showing them the door just because they have the temerity to keep winning elections.



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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.