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September 21, 2014

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Quietly, Reid works to void term limits

Effort to strike amendment comes as top legislators stand to lose seats

Sen. Harry Reid continues to play a key role in a quiet but widespread effort in both parties to upend a state constitutional amendment passed in the 1990s imposing term limits on legislators.

The Nevada Democrat recently told Secretary of State Ross Miller, whose purview includes elections, to be ready to rule on whether the law is constitutional, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation.

Miller declined to comment about the conversation: “I have a number of discussions with Sen. Reid and I can’t discuss details about what we talk about.”

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said the two officials talked, but he also wouldn’t discuss details of the conversation.

Summers said Reid continues to be concerned that special-interest lobbyists will gain more influence if veteran legislators give way to newcomers.

It’s not clear what authority Miller would have to rule on term limits, but opponents of the law could cite a favorable opinion in any relevant court battle.

The Reid-Miller conversation follows a meeting organized by Reid that included prominent Nevada Democratic officeholders such as Mayor Oscar Goodman, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus and Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson.

Republicans and their favored lobbyists are having informal conversations of their own about taking on term limits.

The matter is politically sensitive, lest the public come to believe the elected officials are trying to overturn the will of the voters.

Nineteen legislators, including Buckley, are scheduled to lose their seats in 2010 under the term limits approved more than a decade ago, according to a report by the Nevada Association of Counties.

Titus and six others will be forced to leave in 2012. Goodman and Gibson are both in their final mayoral terms.

Voters approved a term limit amendment in 1994 and passed it a second time, as required by the state Constitution, in 1996. It limits members of the Assembly to six two-year terms and senators to three four-year terms. Mayors are limited to three four-year terms. (A constitutional amendment passed in 1970 limits governors to two four-year terms.)

The term limits movement swept the country, and especially the West, beginning in the early ’90s. Conservative populists led the movement, which expressed outrage at long-serving incumbents and reelection rates that often approached 100 percent. Term limits were a plank of the Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America, though the party mostly lost interest in the cause after taking control of Congress and many state legislatures.

Term limits erode the effectiveness of state legislatures, according to a study commissioned by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research group.

“It was sold to the public as ending ‘career politicians.’ It doesn’t do that. They just divert their career path,” said Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political scientist and co-author of the study.

Politicians who are forced to leave the Legislature run for other offices, often successfully. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had been the speaker of the California Assembly, for instance.

Term limits tend to reduce institutional knowledge about complex budget and regulatory issues, according to Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on term limits.

In the process, the states’ governors gain power relative to state legislatures, as do lobbyists who are armed with information to persuade the new legislators.

In Nevada, a legal challenge could hinge on the process by which the amendment passed in 1996.

The 1994 question before voters, which passed with 70 percent of the votes, limited the terms of elected officeholders, including judges. The Nevada Supreme Court then split the amendment into a Part B, which covered judges, and a Part A, which covered everyone else, according to a history of the amendment published by the Nevada Association of Counties.

Part A passed. Part B failed.

Term limit opponents, bolstered by a Miller opinion that made the same argument, could assert that the amendment approved in 1996 was different from the one passed in 1994, which could legally invalidate the amendment.

David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this report.

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