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In our opinion: Before supporting term limits, Utahns should weigh the consequences

A new poll showed about 75% of Utahns favor term limits. But a few things should be taken into consideration.

On the second to last day of the 2018 Utah legislature work continues at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 7, 2018.
A new poll showed about 75% of Utahns favor the idea of term limits for their elected officials.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utahns really like the idea of term limits. That’s the conclusion of a new Utah Policy poll, and it appears to bolster the idea of a citizen initiative drive being pushed by the United Utah Party.

The poll showed about 75% of Utahns in favor of the idea, plus or minus a 3.1% margin of error.

We understand the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to force entrenched politicians out, although we suspect many voters want to force out someone else’s entrenched politician, while retaining their own.

But before this effort gets started in earnest, a few things need to be taken into consideration.

Every major change in the political process unleashes some unintended consequences. In this case, a regular turnover in elected officials would, in natural and subtle ways, begin to empower the full-time professional staff that run state agencies, as well as lobbyists, all of whom are not subject to any limits on length of service. They would be the ones with institutional memory. They would have natural advantages over newly elected politicians trying to navigate the process. They would be the ones who regularly meet with new lawmakers to explain how things work, and why.

Any term limit initiative ought to include limits on staff and lobbyists, as well.

A related effect is that term limits would fill the state Capitol with lame-duck politicians — those who by law would be unable to run for reelection. As Governing.com has reported, this has led to fiscal problems in states where limits now are in place, “because legislators won’t have to face voter wrath later on.”

The initiative pushed by the United Utah Party has a twist to it. Politicians would be barred from serving longer than a set number of consecutive years. That means they could sit out an election and then run again the next time. This might alleviate the lame-duck problem, although it’s questionable how many people would run again after an appropriate waiting period.

Often, term limits are seen as a way to increase public participation in the electoral process. One study found evidence this has been true in states that already impose limits. However, turnout increased most in states that imposed the most stringent limits. It had no effect in states with 12-year legislative limits, which is what Utah’s proposed initiative would impose.

Finally, there is the question of what problem term limits are meant to solve.

Some say Utah’s Legislature is too dominated by developers and others who serve only to satisfy narrow interests. But there is little evidence to suggest term limits would solve this problem, or that these people wouldn’t be replaced by others with similar interests.

Others say term limits would inject new blood into the political system. But while it is true that incumbents rarely lose in Utah, they do often decide not to run. Examples abound, including the fact Gov. Gary Herbert has decided not to seek reelection next year.

Utah is one of the few states with a citizen legislature. This requires lawmakers to live and work among their constituents.

While the system does occasionally lead to conflicts between business interests and pending legislation, it also serves to keep lawmakers in touch with the people they serve.

Utah has gone down this road before. Twenty-five years ago, the Legislature imposed term limits to ward off a citizen initiative. Lawmakers then repealed that law when the limits were about to take effect 12 years later.

Some people viewed that cynically — but not enough to vote many of those responsible from office. Ultimately, voters already have the power to cut political careers short, if they feel it important enough to do so.

Before supporting term limits, Utahns should carefully consider all the potential consequences.