by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Missouri’s experiment with term limits is a perfect lesson in the law of unintended consequences. Instead of breaking the grip on power held by incumbent lawmakers and returning that power to the people, term limits have handed the power in Jefferson City to the capital’s lobbyists.

With term limits, the average tenure in the General Assembly has dwindled to three to four years, not nearly long enough to maintain the amount of institutional memory needed to deal with the complex issues facing state government.

Some naively thought that a rapid, forced turnover of legislators would give fresh perspectives to old issues. Instead, it has just handed more power to the moneyed special interests who are willing to sacrifice the public good for an increase in their private profits.

Take, for example, the recent passage of Senate Bill 284, the Missouri Video Franchise Bill that was pushed by AT&T. Despite the fact that this bill gave away local control of municipal rights of way and provided a benefit worth tens of millions of dollars to just one or two major corporations, the bill had no problem sailing through the General Assembly and has already been signed into law by Gov. Matt Blunt.

Throughout the debate on SB 284, AT&T continued to claim that the bill was about increasing choice and would result in lower costs for consumers. Because of term limits, AT&T didn’t have to worry that anyone in the legislature would remember that similar claims were made when deregulation legislation was passed in the ’90s. The fact that previous promises of decreased costs and increased broadband access weren’t kept didn’t even register with the fresh bunch of lawmakers who were considering SB 284.

It’s like the old story of the camel and the tent, but in this case the occupants of the tent are constantly changing. When the camel sticks his head in, the people in the tent might protest and push back, but the camel isn’t taking up much space, so it is allowed to keep its head in the tent.

But soon, the people who remember a camel-less tent are replaced by new occupants who can’t remember a time when some part of the camel wasn’t in the tent. So it comes as little surprise when the camel moves in a little more, so that only his rump and tail remain outside of the tent. Again, the occupiers of the tent are replaced with those who now don’t know of a time when most of the camel wasn’t in the tent. By now, the occupiers of the tent assume that the tent’s purpose is to shelter the camel. Letting him all the way into the tent seems like a good idea because there is no one left who realizes that the tent was made for people, not camels!

Likewise, it seems like there is no one in Jefferson City who remembers that public utilities are supposed to serve the public, not just their private shareholders.

Although local representative Jeff Harris would probably not be in the House if it weren’t for term limits, he was one of a handful of legislators who did vote against SB 284. However, I doubt Harris voted against the bill because he remembers the unfulfilled promises of previous telecom deregulation bills.

“I am a Missourian who’s always skeptical of a huge concentration of power, whether it’s in government or the private sector,” Harris said. “It seems to me that just about every lobbyist in Jefferson City was hired to lobby in favor of this specific bill, and that just makes me put my guard up.”

In other words, Jeff smelled the stink of the camel and knew that something wasn’t right. Unfortunately, most legislators don’t have such a keen sense of smell.

Term limits also affect how issues are presented by the press. With the lobbyists able to dominate the conversation in Jefferson City, it takes a long time for the press to investigate and really understand the key issues. Only now are we starting to see serious articles about the effect of SB 284 on local municipalities. Unfortunately, once the camel is all the way in the tent, it is nearly impossible to push him out again.

Term limits came about not because the public has a problem with a good public official serving for long period of time. Term limits came about because the public doesn’t want to see the advantages of incumbency make it impossible for a challenger to compete in an election.

The way to fix this system is twofold.

First, we need to have a system of voluntary public financing of elections, a clean elections bill that will allow challengers to stand on an equal footing with incumbents when it comes to money. This would create a level playing field, in which incumbents and challengers could compete for votes on the basis of ideas, not money. Once we have a system of clean elections in place, then we can get rid of term limits.

Until we fix our electoral system and get rid of these arbitrary terms of service, we should expect a whole herd of camels to keep pushing into the people’s tent.