Maxfield's suit

Sep 30, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

A new challenge to term limits in Wyoming resharpens attention on an unnecessary rule

It's been awhile since term limits for elected officials in Wyoming have bubbled to the surface of public debate, but that is going to change soon as a new challenge to the state's term-limits law is brought to court.

The plaintiff is Wyoming's Secretary of State, Max Maxfield. He has filed suit to have the law overturned.

And he's right.

Wyoming's voters approved the term limits law about 20 years ago, when the nation was caught up in the tumult of the "Contract With America," an invention of Newt Gingrich, soon to become Speaker of the House. A great show was made of lining up members of Congress and signing the so-called contract, which included several promises by the members. One was that the nation always would have a balanced budget (that one hasn't worked so well), and another was that members of Congress would limit themselves to no more than 12 years in office. (Many who signed it didn't abide by it. Some are still in Congress today.)

The idea was that elected officials shouldn't consider their positions to be full-time careers or lifetime guarantees of employment. Wyoming was one of numerous states to follow suit and enact term limits. But not long after, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that term limits for members of the Wyoming Legislature were unconstitutional. Now Maxfield makes the same case for the state's "big five" elected officials -- governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor and superintendent of public instruction.

It's always seemed incongruous that conservative Republicans tend to be the ones who talk most strenuously about term limits, because these are the same people who rail against unwarranted government intrusion in American life. Imposing term limits is a big-time government intrusion into the lives of voters, who already possess the power to limit terms for any and every elected official -- simply by voting.

Everyone has heard of a public official who serves term after term after term often with no opposition and seemingly no chance of ever leaving office alive. But one reason we remember such leaders is that they are relatively rare and, so, stand out in our memories.

Wyoming has had just one three-term governor. Three others in modern times who might well have been elected to a third term -- Stan Hathaway, Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal -- didn't try. Most officials are ready to move on after a reasonable period of time in office. Look at longtime State Rep. Del McOmie of Lander, retiring this year of his own volition. In 1980, two well-established Wyoming lawmakers, Gary Jennings and Bruce McMillan, both of Riverton, were defeated in re-election bids. Wyoming's longest-serving congressman, Frank Mondell, put in 20 years in the House -- but not consecutively. U.S. Sen. Gail McGee tried for a fourth term and lost to Malcolm Wallop. Twelve years later, Wallop came within five votes per precinct of losing himself as he sought a third term.

Just this year, one Fremont County Commissioner lost a re-election bid, and another barely survived a primary challenge. In a few weeks, lively elections for school boards and city councils countywide probably will see an incumbent or two turned out of office.

If that does happen, it will be due to the will of the voters, not the imposition of term limits.

There is something arbitrarily illogical about requiring that the most experienced representatives in our government be forced to leave office just because they have served a certain number of years. It's something we would never require of our top employees in business, even though proponents of term limits often argue also that "government ought to be run like a business." Imagine if, in your business, you had to terminate your top department head just because she had served in the job for 12 years.

Given the state high court's decision to dump term limits for legislators, it seems likely they would decide the same for the top five officials. The only difference might be that the big five actually are full-time employees who draw full salary and benefits, as compared to the part-time legislators who usually lose money while serving.

Above and beyond the finer points of Secretary Maxfield's lawsuit is the overriding truth that term limits are not necessary. The citizens of our state already have the power to limit terms, or to extend them if they desire. They will demonstrate it 38 days from now.

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