ND legislators and lobbyists ramp up opposition to term limits measure

It’s been more than two decades since residents of a state have voted to impose legislative term limits on elected officials. North Dakotans could end that dry spell on November 8 if a majority approves a measure to restrict the time in office for state legislators and governors to eight years.

Supporters say turnover in elected officials opens the door to new ideas and serves as a check on the influence of special interest groups. But Forum News reports opposition to the measure has brought some powerful players together in an effort to preserve the status quo.

Representatives from more than a dozen interest groups and local chambers of commerce stood alongside a bipartisan collection of state legislators to oppose term limits at a Wednesday press conference in the North Dakota Capitol.

The trade groups aligned against the measure include those serving the oil and coal industries, doctors, school administrators, farmers, ranchers and construction workers. The issue has brought together some strange bedfellows, like the North Dakota Farm Bureau and the North Dakota Farmers Union, which rarely collaborate otherwise.

GOP Governor Doug Burgum supports term limits. But just two weeks before the election, a virtual who’s who of leaders in North Dakota politics, business and special interest groups has banded together to ratchet up opposition to the measure. One of their key themes is the need for experienced legislators who fully grasp the complexity of the issues facing the state better than newcomers to the legislature.

Katherine Grindberg, the vice president of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber, said legislation is often complicated, and lawmakers must have expertise to craft good policy. Term limits keep lawmakers from building up the necessary know-how, she said.

“From agriculture to health care to the state budget to everything in between, we rely on experienced leadership with historical context and knowledge to promote and protect business,” Grindberg said.

Aimee Copas, the director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, said citizen legislators play a critical role in forming education policy, and term limits would prevent them from gaining a full understanding of complex systems.

But term limit supporters say it’s not so much about what you know, as whom you know. A poll commissioned by U.S. Term Limits in September indicated more than 80 percent of North Dakotans supported adding term limits to the state constitution.

Measure Chairman Jared Hendrix said Wednesday’s showing of opposition is “just what you’d expect” from “career politicians” and lobbyists. Public officeholders don’t want to lose power in Bismarck due to term limits, and special interest groups benefit from the personal relationships they have with long-serving lawmakers, he said.

“The political class doesn’t like term limits because they’re an inconvenience to the relationships they have so they can more easily get the policies adopted that they want to get adopted,” Hendrix said.

Some 36 states already limit how long a governor serves in office, while 15 states restrict the terms of state legislators. There are a lot of movers and shakers in Bismarck who fear North Dakota may be next.