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2006 may rival 1994


Next month's elections may mean big changes in state legislatures, where 83% of the nation's 7,382 seats are before voters, legislative experts say.

"The changes that come from the 2006 state legislative elections could rival those of the historic 1994 elections when the GOP picked up more than 500 seats," said Tim Storey, an elections expert with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, in a statement. "But conventional wisdom suggests that at the end of the day, it will be the Democrats that have the most to gain."

Both parties, however, will feel the impact of term limits that will bar 268 legislators in 13 states from running for re-election, according to the NCSL tally.

The turnover will also impact the insurance industry, which has complex issues that are best addressed by experienced lawmakers, lobbyists say.

Legislative bodies experiencing the most turnover will be the Nebraska Senate, losing 41% of its membership; the California House, losing 33%; the California Senate, losing 30%; and the Arkansas House, losing 29%. Among those termed out are 26 "key officers"--either presiding officers or majority and/or minority floor leaders--and 109 chairs of standing committees, the NCSL said.

In addition, Oregon voters on Election Day will consider whether to become the 16th state to impose term limits on state legislators. Oregon had enacted term limits in 1992, but the law was invalidated by the state Supreme Court in 2002.

Now, 15 states limit terms for state legislators, down from a peak of 21 states that adopted them between 1990 and 2000. Numbers dropped due to state Supreme Court decisions in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, and legislative action in Idaho and Utah.

It remains to be seen how many more states will follow in Oregon's footsteps and consider term limits.

There are several reasons why the concept's popularity appears to be waning, according to a study by researchers who included representatives of three, nonpartisan groups.

They found that term limits have eroded the experience and power of state legislatures while polarizing their politics, say researchers from the NCSL, the Council on State Governments in Lexington, Ky., and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation in Centerville, Md. The groups, which plan to publish a book on their results next year, were aided in the research by some political scientists.

"Term limits in state legislatures have not accomplished many of the changes proponents promised--greater social, gender and racial diversity in legislatures and a decrease in political careerism," researchers said in a statement.

Insurance industry lobbyists generally oppose term limits primarily because they encourage turnover among legislators. It helps the insurance industry to have experienced legislators who are better able to understand complex insurance issues and to craft workable public policies to address them, they say.

'Statutory brain drain'

"Term limits have become a statutory brain drain," said Neil Alldredge, vp-state and regulatory affairs for the Indianapolis-based National Assn. of Mutual Insurance Cos. "The worst version of term limits is lifetime bans."

Six states--Arkansas, California, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nevada--have such bans, so once a legislator has served up to the limit, he or she may never again run for that office.

The other nine states have consecutive term limits that cap the years legislators may serve in a chamber. Once reaching the limit in one chamber, he or she may run for election to the other chamber or leave the legislature. "After a set period of time (usually two years), the clock resets on the limit, and the legislator may run for election to his or her original seat and serve up to the limit again," the NCSL said.

"Insurance is probably the single most complex issue that legislators have to deal with," said John Lobert, senior vp-state government relations for the Property Casualty Insurers Assn. of America in Des Plaines, Ill.

"Insurance issues often involve complex financial accounting or an understanding of how business performs. Without a baseline of understanding, mistakes can be made despite good intentions," said David Snyder, vp and assistant general counsel for the Washington-based American Insurance Assn.

The only way term limits help the industry is when such limits force out long-term entrenched critics, Mr. Snyder said.

According to the study, observers had "mixed" views about the impact of term limits on the role of lobbyists in state legislatures. "Most observers...believe that lobbyists have gained at least some power with term limits, while observers in...states (without term limits) saw lobbyist influence as steady or even declining during the past decade."

"It is clear, however, that under term limits, lobbying is more difficult than it used to be," the study said. Lobbyists have more lawmakers with whom they must meet, educate and establish relationships, including freshman legislators who may become leaders in few short years, it said.

An unintended negative impact of term limits is that it "speeds up and accelerates legislative leadership battles," Mr. Alldredge said. For term-limited legislators, "public policy becomes secondary to worrying about how to move up the ladder," he said.