Term Limits: The Lousiana Experience

By Rense Johnson

[Of the 20 states that have passed term limits for state legislators, Louisiana is the only state without a ballot initiative process to have done so. Ballot initiatives, which are unavailable to the citizens of Georgia, allow voters to effectively by-pass their legislature and enact popular laws. Since the Georgia General Assembly has failed to enact term limits or a ballot initiative process, Louisiana provides a good example of how a grassroots term limits campaign can be successful.]

The State of Louisiana is not noted for its good government. Good food, perhaps, and hunting and fishing, and jazz for sure, but not good government. Its constitution has been drafted for the benefit of the politicians, not the citizens.

So last year, when a group of us in Louisiana — with lots of help — were successful in a campaign to place legislative term limits in the Louisiana Constitution, it made news in the state.

To amend our constitution requires a two-thirds vote of each house before a proposition can be placed on the ballot for ratification by the voters. Initiative and referendum were not an option. The key Senate vote carried our term limits bill with a 81 percent majority. The House vote was similarly lopsided. The measure was ratified by 76 percent of the voters in the October election.

To begin, we formed Louisiana Citizens for Term Limits, but time did not permit us to organize statewide. Key to our success, therefore, was a coalition wherein we joined with the state organizations of United We Stand America and the Christian Coalition. These two groups had the statewide ranks which we lacked. It is noteworthy that Patrick Blanchard, state director of United We Stand, never asked whether we supported Ross Perot, and Sally Campbell, state director of the Christian Coalition, never asked where we stood on abortion, school prayer or the rest of their program.  Each recognized that term limits was an important part of their own agenda, and recognized that this was a chance to advance that agenda. There is no doubt that their support was essential. We could not have succeeded without them.

Our strategy was simple: it utilized intense and unrelenting personal lobbying prior to and during the session, coupled with pressure at the grassroots in the legislators’ individual districts. An important factor was the fact that each legislator was facing an election that fall, and as one senator told us, “They’re all nervous.” Legislators became increasingly aware of the power of the issue as state and national publicity spotlighted it.

The strategy worked dramatically. In each house, once it became evident that term limits would pass, even some opponents voted yes, reluctant to face voters in the fall with a “no” vote to explain. Many had said it couldn’t be done. At a meeting before the session began, one of our own legislative leaders gave us only a 15 percent chance of success. The day before the final Senate vote (the tougher of the two houses) I didn’t think we had the votes. We had all underestimated the power of the grassroots pressure and publicity, and their effect on the legislators. On that final vote in the Senate, six of the 13 who had opposed us changed their vote to “yes.” Three of those took the podium and spoke for us. A seventh, who had planned to change his vote to “no,” stayed hitched instead.

The lessons from all this are, we think, useful and instructive for Georgia and other non-initiative states:

  • A relatively small group of people who believe in the importance of what they are doing can have a disproportionate impact on events — a form of leverage, if you will.
  • This is magnified when strong public opinion supports the objective.
  • Public sentiment must nevertheless be mobilized, which is why the grassroots organization is so important. Politicians respond to pressure from back home.
  • The imminence of an election works wonders in affecting legislators’ attitudes, especially when they know there will be those who will be ready and willing to remind their constituents of the error of their ways. In this case many (not all) voted to limit their own terms only because the alternative appeared to be even more distasteful.
  • Intense personal lobbying of legislators coupled with intense grassroots pressure is almost impossible to resist when properly applied.
  • Comity and good manners are as important when one is lobbying as in any other situation — perhaps more so. When one is trying to persuade a legislator to change his vote, confrontational tactics work against the objective. Those six senators who changed their vote to come with us on that final day would have found it much more difficult to do so had we been confrontational with them.

Based upon our experience in Louisiana, we see a tremendous opportunity for other states, like Georgia, to obtain a term limit law for state legislators. Using a parallel strategy, adapted to allow for obvious differences between our states, Georgia too can succeed in this endeavor. If we could get it done in the Louisiana Legislature last year, of all places, term limits ought to be achievable anywhere.

Rense Johnson is Chairman of Citizens for Term Limits. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.

Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 2, 1996). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.


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