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Term Limits for State Legislators

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Written by Dr. Madeleine Roberts
Published on December 19, 2023
Research Highlights

Missouri and four other states have lifetime limits on the number of years a state legislator can hold elected office.

Term limits on state legislatures have significant effects on decreasing institutional expertise, decreasing concentration of power in party leadership, and increasing power of lobbying organizations.

Term limits do not increase diversity of a legislative body.

16 states have term limits on their state legislatures.

Term limits cap the number of years that someone can be elected to a state legislative position, either by limiting consecutive years served or years served in a lifetime.

10 states apply consecutive term limits to their state lawmakers (Table 1). In these states, a legislator is limited to serving maximum consecutive years in a chamber. Afterwards, someone may run for election to the other chamber, leave the legislature, or in some instances, come back to the legislature after a certain period of time has passed.

MO and 5 other states apply lifetime limits, which prohibit a legislator from being reelected after they served the maximum term.

MO and most other states implemented term limits in the 1990s as a result of citizen ballot initiatives. The implementation of term limits remains a popular opinion among Americans, with 87% favoring imposing term limits on members of the U.S. Congress (Pew Research Center 2023).

The goals of enacting term limits were to increase turnover, reduce incumbency advantage, reduce the impact of interest groups, and increase the diversity of legislative bodies (age, professional background, gender, race/ethnicity) (Richardson 2005).

Table 1. Term limited states and their consecutive or lifetime term limits. Figure adapted from NCSL.

Enacting term limits results in a loss of institutional knowledge of elected lawmakers.

Term limits lead to a reduction of institutional knowledge of a legislative body, due to decreased policy expertise and inability to specialize (Kousser 2006, Richardson 2005). In MO, enaction of term limits has decreased institutional expertise of legislators and empowered the Governor and lobbyists (Richardson 2005).

Institutional knowledge consists of the information, data, and resources used by legislators to make decisions. Loss of experience and institutional knowledge results in higher spending during the budget process (Cummins 2012). The budget-making process in MO begins in the House, where less experienced lawmakers often lean towards making short-term decisions. The impact of term limits on fiscal policy tends to be more pronounced in the House than Senate, as Senators tend to be more experienced legislators.

See our Science Note Retaining Institutional Knowledge in the State Legislature for other strategies to retain institutional knowledge.

Term limits increase political polarization of a legislative body by increasing the partisan gap in voting records of members of both parties (Olson 2020). Legislators in term-limited states more frequently vote with their party and engage in less bipartisan collaboration (Swift 2016).

There is no impact of enacting term limits on the population makeup of a legislative body (i.e. age, race/ethnicity, income-level, professional background, political ideology) (Carey 2006, Richardson 2005).

 

Some states have repealed or amended their state legislative term limits.

ID, MA, OR, UT, WA, and WY no longer have term limits for their state legislatures; term limits were either repealed or were found by their state courts to be unconstitutional (NCSL 2023).

The statutes in MA, WA, and WY were found to be unconstitutional because the term limits were considered to be a “qualification for office”, which must be stated in the state constitution, making the statute unconstitutional (NCSL 2023).

In OR, the Supreme Court of Oregon found that the ballot measure violated the “single-subject rule” for constitutional amendments, which overturned the provisions of the ballot measure (Taylor 2004).

In ID and UT, term limits were repealed by state legislatures (Taylor 2004).

Voters in AR and MI have recently amended their states’ term limits by ballot measure. AR voters have amended term limits twice via ballot measure; these series of actions are listed below.

  • Prior to 2014, Representatives could serve for 6 years and Senators could serve for 14 years.
  • In 2014 a ballot initiative changed term limits to a 16 year lifetime combined limit.
  • In 2020 voters approved a measure that set 12 year consecutive term limits with the ability to run for reelection after a 4 year break.

In MI, HJR R was approved by voters in 2022 to change term limits from three 2-year terms in the House and two 4-year terms in the Senate to a combined total of 12 years.

 

References

Carey JM, Niemi RG, Powell LW, Moncrief GF (2006) The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures: A New Survey of the 50 States. Quarterly, 31(1). https://www.jstor.org/stable/40263375

Cummins J (2013) The Effects of Legislative Term Limits on State Fiscal Conditions. American Politics Research, 41(3), 417–442. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1532673X12461270

Kousser T (2006) The Limited Impact of Term Limits: Contingent Effects on the Complexity and Breadth of Laws. State Politics and Policy Quarterly, 6(4), 410–429. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/state-politics-and-policy-quarterly/article/abs/limited-impact-of-term-limits-contingent-effects-on-the-complexity-and-breadth-of-laws/B94CC2FCCA16AF1AB8EE8E48CC45983B

Olson MP, Rogowski JC (2020) Legislative term limits and polarization. Journal of Politics, 82(2), 772–783. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/706764

Pew Research Center (2023) Americans’ Dismal View on the Nation’s Politics. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/09/19/how-americans-view-proposals-to-change-the-political-system/

Richardson LE, Valentine D, Daily Stokes S (2005) Assessing the Impact of Term Limits in Missouri. Government Review, 37(3). https://www.jstor.org/stable/4355401

Swift CS, VanderMolen KA (2016) Term Limits and Collaboration Across the Aisle: An Analysis of Bipartisan Co-sponsorship in Term Limited and Non-Term Limited State Legislatures. State Politics and Policy Quarterly, 16(2), 198–226. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532440015608760?download=true&journalCode=spaa

Taylor M (2004) Background Brief on Term Limits. State of Oregon Legislative Committee Services. https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/lpro/Publications/2004EJ_Term_Limits.pdf

 

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