News


WHO WILL EMERGE ON TOP? UNDER TERM LIMITS, WHO KNOWS?

By Lee Leonard
Dispatch Statehouse Reporter

The producer of a corporately funded training seminar for new state legislators was looking for panelists to show the neophytes how to find their way through the tortuous maze at the Statehouse.

Several lobbyists agreed to speak, but two demurred, saying in effect: "We don't want to teach them anything. We can't wait for term limits, when nobody will know anything."

Ultra-cynical? Perhaps, but it demonstrates the uncertainty behind the brave new world of a General Assembly with term limits in place.

In 1992, Ohioans voted to limit state legislative terms to eight consecutive years (not counting any terms already served then).

So, when the legislature convenes in January 2001, no House member will have more than six years' experience. In the Senate, the full effect will be felt in 2003.

Even while lawmakers might try to prolong their careers by switching chambers, term limits will eliminate veteran legislators and accelerate turnover.

After seasoned leaders are gone, some observers contend, lobbyists will rule -- because, on Capitol Square, lobbyists will have the experience and perspective.

"This place is going to be for sale more than ever," one exiting Democratic legislator predicted.

Others argue that lobbyists will lose influence, that lobbyists won't have time to get the foothold they've maintained with veteran legislators through wining and dining.

The lobbyists themselves try to peddle the latter, self-serving tale. Some earnestly believe it; others slyly poor-mouth to create the perception of a disadvantage -- all the way to the bank.

"Lobbyists won't be more powerful under term limits," one said. "The governor and the media will be most powerful. We're the ones who'll be finding our way because we've depended on relationships. You can't build them fast enough."

Lobbyists and legislators thrive on certainty: a trust that lobbyists will produce reliable information about bills and that legislators will keep commitments to pass or kill them. Relationships built on trust will diminish with shorter legislative terms.

"I think lobbyists are nervous as hell," said Rep. Lynn Olman, R-Maumee. "I think they've had it pretty easy for a long time. They've got all their Rolodexes filled in in pencil instead of pen because today's legislator will be gone tomorrow."

As for the matter of money: Lobbyists will continue to help elect legislators whose views line up with their own, but weaker, inexperienced legislative leaders won't generate the same open-cash-register donations.

Veteran lobbyist Keith Brooks, a former Ohio Senate clerk, recalls the "era of predictability," the cause-and-effect reign of legendary House Speaker Vernal G. Riffe Jr.
"Now we're dealing with the world of probability," said Brooks, referring to the declining ability of legislative leaders to deliver at will. "Next, it will be the world of possibilities."

In Michigan, in its second year after term limits were initially felt, the House has experienced some of the effects.

"There are a lot of us crying in our beer," said Nancy McKeague, a vice president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce who has noted legislators paying more attention to constituents. "I'm not as sure anymore."

Larry Lee, chief of the Gongwer News Service bureau in Lansing, views fund raising as something that will keep lobbyists on top of the game.

"I still think they'll be stronger," he said. "When they (new legislators) come in, they have to immediately be thinking about the next step, whether it's a leadership spot, the Senate or some other job."

Where will they turn? To lobbyists.

First-term Michigan Rep. Valde Garcia, a former Senate staff member familiar with lobbyists, saw them almost get their heads handed to them by feisty freshmen -- after real-estate and business lobbyists tried to squash environmental funding on a land-sprawl issue.

"They went overboard and almost demanded something," Garcia said. "There was a backlash. We're not here to do anybody's bidding. These folks (legislators) are intelligent; they don't want to be seen as political flunkies who push a button for somebody."

In the opinion of Scott Elisar, a lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Realtors, term limits have "changed the sphere of influence. It was at Broad and High. Now you need to be out in the districts. You need to be back home."

Instead of playing "inside baseball" at the Capitol, Elisar said, his association spends "a lot of time traveling the state and meeting with our Realtors and . . . (legislators), talking about issues that impact on them in their own back yards."

Trade associations have a built-in advantage, said Robert Schmitz, an independent lobbyist who represents savings and loan associations and owners of harness-racing tracks.

With bankers, insurance agents, retailers and small-business owners in every county, such associations already have a network of members.

Dan Leite, another independent lobbyist, relies on name-dropping for access. When he represents optometrists, say, and encounters a new legislator at a social event, he mentions an optometrist from his or her district.

Certainly the lawmaker has at least heard of the doctor.

In any case, lobbyists don't wait for new lawmakers to begin courting them.

One group meets periodically to exchange information on who's running where and to handicap the contests. Then it targets the front-runners.

"The sooner you get to know them and start a dialogue, the better," independent lobbyist Thomas C. Green said.

The trend toward "grass roots" in the era of term limits goes beyond individual politicking: California-style ballot initiatives will become fashionable, many lobbyists think, as a term-limited legislature fails to deal with issues.

The reason? Term limits will produce inexperienced and weakened leaders who cannot broker deals.

The resulting gridlock will force such initiatives, lobbyist Brooks said.

"If I'm doing a presentation to a client, it's definitely going to include a component of initiative petition," he said. "You have to cover all your options on how to accomplish your goal."

Brooks also predicts an increase in coalitions of lobbying groups, a la the union of industrial electric users that had such an influence last year on the electric-deregulation bill.

Independent lobbyist Robert Klaffky figures that lobbying on big issues will resemble political campaigning.

Indecision in the legislature, he said, will encourage interest groups to rely on public-relations strategies, polls and other marketing tools to marshal public pressure -- as occurred during the debate over electric deregulation.

He sees such a process as healthy.

"If you can't convince them (legislators) that this is an important issue with money or with personal relationships, then the only alternative is to convince them that the voters want it."

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© Copyright 2008 State Representative Lynn Olman. All rights reserved.

 

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I was honored to work with the Northwest Ohio legislative delegation to make the Veterans Glass City Skyway a reality

 

The Valentine Theatre
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Jeep
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