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…