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No need for term limits: Legislature’s turnover rate tops 80% in past decade

TOPEKA — Only 27 of 165 Kansas legislators holding office in 2010 — a mere 16% — have been able to harness the desire, persuasiveness, money or luck to still hold seats in the House or Senate.

Exodus from the Legislature — driven by unprecedented campaign contributions, rising toxicity in politics, low legislative salaries and long stretches away from home — meant 15 Democrats and 12 Republicans in that class were still standing after the 2020 election.

While Missouri voters passed a constitutional amendment nearly 30 years ago to rely on term limits to prompt turnover, Kansas’ roster in the Statehouse has been substantially transformed without such a mandate.

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Michael Smith, political science chairman at Emporia State University, said during the Kansas Reflector podcast the churn among Kansas senators and representatives appealed to some voters yearning for fresh faces and ideas at the Capitol. The evolution in personnel also diminishes institutional knowledge useful when dealing with complex policy, he said.

“The nice thing about having experienced legislators is that they can mentor the newer legislators,” Smith said. “They can show them the ropes and they can go over why certain policy ideas that sound at the surface like they might be a great idea didn’t work out like it was hoped.”

The 2010 group of state legislators included Sen. Laura Kelly, now governor, and Sen. Jeff Colyer, who made it to the governor’s office just before Kelly. The roster included Sen. Tim Huelskamp and Rep. Kevin Yoder, who were subsequently elected to Congress. Independence Sen. Derek Schmidt is the state’s attorney general. Scott Schwab, who is Kansas’ secretary of state, was in the House. And, Sen. Vicki Schmidt went on to be elected state insurance commissioner.

Those folks moved on by climbing the political ladder in Kansas, but were tip of an iceberg in terms of movement that left eight of 40 senators and 14 of 125 representatives holding seats in the same chamber they were in during 2010. A dozen House members in 2010 later joined the Senate, but only five of them still serve in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

Democratic Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, Kansas, is the longest-serving current state senator in Kansas, having entered the Legislature in 1994. Hiawatha Sen. Dennis Pyle, who arrived in 2000, holds distinction as the most veteran of GOP senators.

Over in the House, Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, possesses senior status. She was elected in 1992. Wichita Rep. Brenda Landwehr tops the GOP roster in the House. She was elected in 1994, left in 2012 and was elected again in 2016.

Bob Beatty, the Washburn University political science professor, said the Legislature’s composition was naturally fluid as people retired, changed jobs, moved away or took on new family responsibilities.

A key influence in the past decade, Beatty said, was launch in 2012 of the Kansas Republican Party’s successful plan to recruit conservative Republicans to challenge moderate GOP senators. Internecine conflict was relatively new to Kansas, he said, but has remained a factor in elections for the House and Senate as the Legislature became more conservative.

Beatty said the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which opened the firehose of dark money into politics, played a role in Kansas legislative races. Outside sources of cash proliferated and the blur of mailers and advertisements sometimes leaves candidates uncertain of who is influencing their races, he said.

He said toxicity of political discourse deterred lawmakers from seeking re-election to the Senate and House.

“Some legislators who get into the Legislature, you know, maybe they’re even a little naive, ‘Oh, I’m gonna join the citizen Legislature.’ And, then they get in there and it can become very, very toxic. They’re like, ‘OK, that’s enough of this for me.’”

Smith said legislators in Kansas weren’t fairly compensated for the four-month session in Topeka and the ongoing demands of constituent services.

“We actually do have a term limit for legislators. It’s called low pay,” he said.

Formal term limits don’t bring diversity of thought and career experiences that champions of reform often tout, Smith said.

“You do not get private citizens from all walks of life — nurses, truck drivers, teachers, and so forth — running for the Legislature,” he said. “What you get is the same politicians rotating from office to office.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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