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Voters overwhelmingly support them. Legislators are more ambivalent.

Now, on his way out the door, Gov. Mike Rounds has announced he believes South Dakota's term limit laws for legislators aren't working.

The current law limits legislators to a maximum of four consecutive terms in the same house of the Legislature. The constitutional amendment instituting term limits in 1992 was approved by 63 percent of the voters. In 2008, 76 percent of the voters rejected a repeal of the state's term limits.

But Rounds and a number of lawmakers believe the limits are doing more harm than good.

"The one thing I would really try to promote, I think it's time to revisit term limits for legislators," Rounds said this month. "I think it has done a huge amount of damage to the ability of the Legislature to carry on from year to year."

Critics of term limits argue that they lead to inexperienced legislators without restricting the seniority and experience of lobbyists, executive branch bureaucrats and Legislative Research Council staff - giving all three groups influence over citizen lawmakers.

"The general story on this is it tends to strengthen people who are not subject to term limits," said Ken Blanchard, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen. "Anybody who's going to be there for more than the limit of terms is going to build up a knowledge base and a skill-set - whereas legislators, once they build up that knowledge and skill-set, they get term-limited out."

That doesn't persuade supporters of term limits, who see legislative longevity as a problem, not an asset.

"To me, the whole concept of a citizen legislature is to have new people cycling through the process, not the same people there for years and years and years," said House Majority Leader David Lust, R-Rapid City. "I think we're better served if people are more connected with their legislators, and I think you get that with term limits."

Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, rejected the argument that letting lawmakers serve longer helps them better resist lobbyists.

"Some of those guys, the longer they're there, the more the lobbyists get them," Bradford said.

In 2008, supporters of term limits argued that a system without them "let a handful of powerful politicians cut deals with special interest lobbyists in return for campaign cash they could use to get re-elected, decade after decade, with no limit on how long they could stay in office."

That year, 72 percent of legislators voted to repeal the measure. Only 24 percent of voters agreed with them in November.

In the wake of that lopsided vote, few lawmakers advocate publically to eliminate term limits altogether. Many say term limits are good - but that the limits should be extended.

"It does some good things as far as stirring the pot and bringing in fresh blood, although I do agree to the extent that they are too short," said Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center. "At the end of eight years the legislators are just developing a solid foundation of contacts and general knowledge on the system. Then they're forced, arbitrarily, to leave the Legislature."

Rep. Fred Romkema, R-Spearfish, believes term limits "have the unintended consequence of weakening the legislative branch" and said a 12-year limit would be better than an 8-year limit.

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Rep. Kristin Conzet, R-Rapid City, said term limits are a frequent topic of discussion among legislators. She said she likes "some revitalization with new people coming in and doing their civic duty" but also appreciates the need for continuity and stability.

Rather than extending or eliminating term limits, Conzet would prefer a system where elections were staggered so only a portion of lawmakers were up for election each year - limiting the influx of new and inexperienced legislators at any one time.

In practice, South Dakota has "one of the more flexible term limitations," said retired South Dakota State University political science professor Bob Burns. Lawmakers are limited to four consecutive terms in any one house - leaving them free to run for the other legislative house when they reach their limit.

Many lawmakers take advantage of that, switching houses to stay in the Legislature. Bradford, who won election to the state Senate after eight years in the House of Representatives, said this lets talented legislators stay around if they want.

"All kinds of guys are doing it down there," he said. "I don't see that big deal about it bringing in too many new people."

Despite dissatisfaction with eight-year term limits on the part of many legislators, there may not be many changes coming. Lust said he hasn't heard of any lawmakers making a push to change the state's term limits law.

Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or

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