About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

No, it’s not a given that more turnover in the House and Senate would make special interests more powerful.

It’s curious that so many of the folks pushing for more ethics and transparency in state government oppose a proposed reform that the citizenry seems to love: legislative term limits.

Opponents cite two main reasons, one of which is flat-out wrong and the other open to debate.

The first is that voters frequently evict incumbent lawmakers, rendering term limits unnecessary.

House Judiciary Chair David Tarnas echoed that refrain last session when he single-handedly killed a term limits measure. He pointed to a League of Women Voters analysis showing that from 2012 to 2022, 56% of the Senate and 65% of the House turned over.

But a closer analysis of the same data by Civil Beat found that losing reelection bids accounted for only 26 of the 72 departures of legislators during that period.

Thanks to the power of incumbency, no one should equate Hawaii election results to term limits.

  • A Special Commentary Project

The second reason often cited by opponents is that a less experienced Legislature would shift more power to unelected bureaucrats and — gasp — lobbyists. 

The former is hard to argue, although a little less meddling in the workings of state government by entrenched legislators could sometimes be a good thing. (Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz’s arm-twisting to build a $100 million-plus first responders’ training center in his district comes to mind.)

But the latter is less clear-cut. Analysis of the results of legislative term limits in other states finds that special interests did not always gain influence — and sometimes lost it — when lawmakers could not serve as long as they damn well pleased.

A Common Refrain

If legislators are term-limited, lobbyists will be super-charged. The notion pops up everywhere, including last year’s Civil Beat candidate Q&As.

“Lobbyists and donors are not term-limited,” said Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, a nine-year veteran of the Legislature. “In states with legislative term limits, these unelected individuals often end up as the keepers of institutional knowledge and influence.”

Opening Day of the 2023 legislative session. Unlike the governor, lieutenant governor and county leaders, state lawmakers are not limited in how long they can serve. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Political analyst Neil Milner put it this way in a Civil Beat column last year: “When you evict the experts, you create a vacuum of knowledge. And, as it turns out, this vacuum is likely filled with experienced mentors like lobbyists and special interest groups.”

Before the Commission to Improve Standards and Conduct — also known as the Foley Commission — narrowly voted to recommend legislative term limits last year, member Robert Harris explained his opposition.

“You would be looking at a new elected group of individuals that are probably going to be more reliant on trying to find campaign funds and therefore going to increase the influence of special interests,” said Harris, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

Not So Fast …

Those takes don’t always square with analyses of states that have had legislative term limits long enough to assess the actual effects on political influence.

Twenty-one states enacted legislative term limits from 1990 to 2000, but six repealed the limits and actual impacts on legislatures didn’t begin until 1996 at the earliest.

One of the early studies, released in 2001, surveyed lobbyists in five term-limited states and the results supported what term limit opponents have claimed would happen in Hawaii: Over 60% felt that special interest groups in general had increased their influence, and almost half said their own group had gained influence.

Turnover, whether induced by term limits or otherwise, disrupts the relationships that some lobbyists leverage to influence legislative processes.

As term limits took effect in more states, later studies had more data to analyze.

There was good and bad news for lobbyists in a 2004 book by Thad Kousser, “Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislature Professionalism.”

While lobbyists acknowledged getting to write more bills themselves, Kousser cited one California capitol observer who said, “Lobbyists used to know all the players; they’d been through it before. Now, there’s a whole new set of players.”

A 2011 study of legislators’ perceptions of the influence of special interests “failed to uncover any statistical difference … in term-limited and non term-limited states.”

By 2021, a Cambridge University Press study found that many lobbyists considered themselves less influential in term-limited legislatures.

“Although legislators in high-turnover assemblies may be less knowledgeable, such turnover, whether induced by term limits or otherwise, disrupts the relationships that some lobbyists leverage to influence legislative processes,” the authors wrote.

“Veteran lobbyists in term-limited states express frustration over having to maintain relationships with and educate new lawmakers continuously,” the study found. “These challenges are compounded by the fact that freshmen legislators are often hesitant to meet with lobbyists because they view them as corrupt.”

Don’t Hold Your Breath

The varying aspects of legislative term limits that strengthen and hinder lobbyists would likely “cancel each other out” in Hawaii, said Colin Moore, a political scientist with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

“Term limits won’t dramatically change the power of lobbyists,” he said.

And even the empowerment of bureaucrats would “likely be muted,” Moore said, “because the 16-year limit is long enough to allow legislators to learn the ‘tricks of the trade.’”

A combined 16-year limit on legislative service in the House and/or Senate is what the Foley Commission proposed in House Bill 796 after initially considering an eight-year limit.

Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Robert Harris conducts meeting. Left, Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Nikos Leverenz casts a vote.
Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct members Nikos Leverenz, left, and Robert Harris at a meeting last year. The panel proposed numerous reforms for state government, including legislative term limits. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Commission members, who proposed myriad other legislative reforms, weren’t enthusiastic about pushing term limits at all and said they were doing so because polls have shown widespread support for them.

A 2018 Civil Beat poll found that 70% of likely voters statewide supported legislative term limits, while only 14% opposed them.

Civil Beat surveyed legislators themselves last session and found them surprisingly open to term limits. Nearly half of House members and more than a third of senators supported term limits, and there were enough undecideds in both chambers to give such a proposal a shot at passing if votes were actually allowed.

Even veteran lawmakers could continue serving for 16 more years.

They never are, because committee chairs regularly kill term limit bills without even allowing committee votes.

Before voting on their term limits proposal at their meeting last October, Foley Commission members acknowledged the roadblock that legislative leaders present. Sitting legislators would have to be “grandfathered in,” the members said, for any such measure to be “politically feasible.”

That means that if the Legislature and then voters approved a constitutional amendment for legislative term limits, even veteran lawmakers could continue serving for 16 more years.

Obviously, legislative term limits are far from the timeliest avenue to much-needed state government reform. But they do merit fact-based debate unhindered by false assumptions.

Read this next:

Allison Wallis: House Hunting In Hawaii Is Hard. Try Finding One That Fits A Wheelchair

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

There is a concerning lack of understanding of the complexity of this type of work. At its most fundamental level, the work of these Legislators is solving problems by creating and amending laws. All of the problems these articles and comments highlight are real, but the idea that they would be solved by ensuring that our lawmakers are less experienced and likely spend most if not all of their available terms simply learning how to do the work seems incredibly foolish, at least to me. We have next to no real qualifications to run for these offices, so as it stands, the voters are our first and last lines of defense.As much as everyone hates lawyers, they are likely the only group of people generally equipped to come in and understand the fundamentals to the degree necessary to do an adequate job from the jump, and having worked with many lawyers in my career, even that’s not a given.

N8IVE_HYN808 · 6 months ago

Those who think term limits will empower lobbyists are exactly wrong.Lobbyists cultivate long term ‘friends’ among legislators, and they’re power is entrenched and magnified by the lifers. Long term incumbency leads to rigid, unresponsive legislators. Term limits empower voters, not lobbyists. The legislator who killed term limits without a vote, David Tarnas, has been richly rewarded and has raked in the dough since doing so.

RussellR · 6 months ago

Either way, it won't matter without proper consequences: "rules without enforcement are merely suggestions." Perhaps we need an internal affairs office - not another committee, but one with investigators, and the authority to pursue malfeasance before the Courts, the ability to get warrants, etc. Not just for legislators, either: bad-actor lobbyists & lege staffers, as well as bureaucracy appointees should be "on the table".Funny that other gov't employees (eg. first responders, other civil servants in the executive branch, and members of the military) are subject to multiple layers of integrity checks - until you get to legislators, and then... barely a talking to. With term limits, it likely means that the "career" lege staffers and appointees will be even more frequently targeted by lobbyists. Such a unit would step in if they accede to enticements, or would take the call if they don't, and needed somewhere with teeth & discretion to file a complaint.

Kamanulai · 6 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.