by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Since the end of the legislative session, more Missourians have been questioning the wisdom of the term-limits law that was passed in 1992. Back then, term limits were heralded as the way to make elections competitive and give those who wanted to run for office a fighting chance against entrenched politicians.

But while term limits have done little to reduce the advantages of incumbency – dislodging an incumbent is just as hard and more expensive than it ever was – they have succeeded in increasing the power of capital city lobbyists. Politicians, citizen groups and newspapers across Missouri are starting to ask whether term limits are delivering on their promise or not.

Any re-examination of our experiment with term limits is bound to draw the attention of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Term Limits organization. Last week, Jeremy Johnson, the U.S. Term Limits director of state government affairs, said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article that he was “prepared to run TV and radio ads and ‘do whatever it takes’ to keep Missouri’s legislative term limits in place.”

Claiming to be “one of the largest grass-roots movements in American history,” this organization goes from state to state testifying, lobbying and pontificating about the great benefits of term limits. U.S. Term Limits, however, has no interest in leveling the political playing field by supporting public financing of elections, free media time for candidates or any other type of campaign finance reform that would actually reduce the advantages of incumbency. In fact, their main goal seems to be to make sure that races for the General Assembly are based on one criterion: Money. Or, special interest money, to be exact.

You see, U.S. Term Limits is not the grass-roots organization that it makes itself out to be. It is yet another “Astroturf” organization funded almost entirely by billionaire Howie Rich, a real estate tycoon from New York who has been trying to get states to enact his radical ideas for property rights, education spending and state funding for the past 20 years or so.

When he first started proposing his radical ideas to state legislatures, Rich had a hard time getting anyone to listen to his hired lobbyists about how states needed to change their governments to suit Rich’s sensibilities. Instead of reconsidering the wisdom of his proposals, it seems that Rich set about crafting a strategy to get rid of those legislators and get new people in place – people who would listen to and learn to trust his lobbyists and enact his ideas. Pressing first for term limits and then for his other proposals allowed Rich to ensure that there would be a continuous stream of politicians who would need funding, advice and patriotic-sounding initiatives to propose to their constituents.

This strategy has largely worked. In 2006, Rich was able to get nearly 35 ballot measures before voters in states all over the nation.

There still seems to be a problem, however. Despite spending nearly $15 million of his New York money to influence how people live in some 14 other states, only one of the ballot initiatives passed. Perhaps the voters in those states are not as gullible as Howie thinks they are.

The team from U.S. Term Limits has to be admired for their boldness. They publicly claim they are fighting against the influence of special interests while actually paving the way for Rich’s interest groups to gain more influence. For example, Johnson wrote an opinion piece in the April 10 Tribune saying that term limits are “loosening the grip of special interests” in Jefferson City.

Really? Most observers in Jefferson City are seeing the opposite effect. On last week’s local “Views Of the News” radio program, MissouriNet News Director Bob Priddy observed: “Since term limits came in, I have seen repeatedly, more and more, where members of the Senate … stand up and debate, and one is looking to the other and says, ‘Has so and so out in the hallway approved this amendment?’ Or someone gets up and says, ‘I’ve got this organization and this organization to agree to this bill.’ This is becoming more and more pervasive. … The lobbyists in our Capitol building” today “have far more power and have far more influence over people who have a limited amount of time when they come here to get something done.

Like most “Astroturf” organizations, U.S. Term Limits rarely gets exposed for the fraud that it is. The Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star and even this venerable newspaper regularly quote spokesmen from this group on the term-limits issue without making mention of who is funding the organization or questioning its interest in Missouri politics. I fail to understand why they are a credible source for any reporter.

If we are going to have a serious debate here in Missouri about the effects and efficacy of term limits and how we should best reform our electoral process, then we need to tell Rich to either move to Missouri or stay the heck out of our lives.