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Published: Thursday, 1/6/2005

Statehouse switcheroo

IF THE original purpose of term limits was to discourage members of the Ohio legislature from becoming career politicians, the 12-year-old experiment isn't working. For evidence, look at the 126th General Assembly, sworn in on Monday.

Five of the Ohio Senate's "new" members, including four Republicans and one Democrat, are not newcomers; they're simply moving over from the House of Representatives.

And Louis Blessing, of Cincinnati, has, in baseball parlance, hit for the cycle. He is the first legislator to be term-limited out of the House and then the Senate, only to move back to the House.

Can you see a pattern?

Such a perpetual exchange was most assuredly not on the minds of voters in 1992 when they approved a constitutional amendment that instituted term limits. The amendment was sold on the premise that it would prevent politicians, along with their pet projects and special interests, from becoming entrenched for years in the Statehouse.

Instead, more and more politicos are taking long-term advantage of the amendment, which limits legislators to eight years in the House (four terms) or Senate (two terms), but allows them to return to either chamber after four years away, even if those four years "away" were spent in the other chamber.

The result, if voters cooperate, is a constant switcheroo, with members moving from one end of the Statehouse to the other on an ongoing basis.

Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that term limits - far from putting "citizen legislators" in charge in Columbus - have made state bureaucrats, the legislature's political staff, and lobbyists more powerful, to the detriment of good government.

That's because many legislators hit town with goals that are politically attractive but may be harmful to the public interest in the long run, but they aren't around long enough either to gain significant experience in public policy or to answer for what goes wrong.

So maybe we should be pleased that at least some lawmakers are interested in public service enough to be schlepping from the House to the Senate and back. As incoming Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) pointed out, the four new GOP senators are getting "very good committee assignments" - and thus more personal power and influence - because of their previous experience in the House.

As always, however, the proof will come if there is some improvement in the legislative product. With the General Assembly, it is imperative to watch what they do, not what they say.

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