CARSON CITY — When Nevada voters approved term limits for most state and county elected officials in 1996, they probably never figured those limitations would create today’s political version of musical chairs.
Term limits these days doesn’t usually mean a graceful move into the private sector after eight or 12 years. It means politicians have to get creative to stay in the public eye.
And that they do.
Frequently the opportunities turn out to be down the hall in the state Capitol or across the street in Carson City.
State lawmakers termed out of one house of the Legislature have moved to the other or found another political office, such as former state Sen. Bob Coffin, who is now a member of the Las Vegas City Council.
But nowhere is the migration of politicians more prominently on display than at the statewide level. Five of the six current constitutional officeholders are termed out of office in early 2015, requiring those who want to stay in public service to seek other opportunities.
Those who have closely followed the impact of term limits in Nevada over the years said this development is an unintended consequence of limiting time in office. But they also argue it isn’t necessarily a bad development.
TERM LIMIT SUPPORT STILL FIRM
Longtime Republican media consultant Sig Rogich, who spearheaded the term limits initiatives in the 1990s, said the development does not concern him.
“I think it is a big plus,” he said. “It allows a public official to bring that wealth of knowledge to a higher office.”
Term limits ensures that fresh ideas come to public offices when new people are elected, Rogich said.
“The idea that only one person is capable of doing a job is absurd,” he said.
Rogich said he remains a supporter of term limits despite the many critics, including the late state Sen. Bill Raggio, who served for 38 years, the longest ever in the Senate.
Another critic is U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who in comments to the Nevada Legislature in 2011 called on lawmakers to abolish term limits for elected officials. Reid said the limitations decrease institutional knowledge among elected officials and push out leaders who still might have support from the people they serve.
“We don’t need artificial term limits,” Reid said during his speech. “After all, we already have natural ones. They’re called elections.”
University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Eric Herzik said neither voters nor analysts could have predicted the resiliency of elected officials seen in the musical chairs scenario.
“And the willingness of the public to keep the same elected officials in office, only in different positions,” he said.
But the effect of forcing elected officials to move on to other public offices can be viewed as a positive aspect of term limits, Herzik said.
“At one level you can say it is a positive unintended consequence,” he said. “Because if someone stayed in one office, they could get stale and you aren’t getting new ideas. By the same token, if officials were termed out after only eight years of public service, we would lose a lot of institutional knowledge.
“Elected officials who have political ambitions, and there is nothing wrong with ambition, can learn about state government in other jobs,” Herzik said.
Term limits have produced mixed results, but Herzik said he remains a supporter.
“For every lawmaker that we’re sorry to lose we get new perspectives,” he said. “And for some who leave, it was probably their time to go.”
MUSICAL CHAIRS 2014 STYLE
In the upcoming election cycle, three of the four Democratic statewide officeholders, Treasurer Kate Marshall, Controller Kim Wallin and Secretary of State Ross Miller, have all announced their intentions to run for other statewide offices.
Miller is running for attorney general, Marshall is running for secretary of state and Wallin is running for treasurer.
Democratic Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto has not yet announced any plans to run for another political office next year.
Nor has termed-out Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who has the distinction of being the first elected official to be termed out of two offices. Krolicki served eight years as treasurer before being forced out in 2007.
The sixth constitutional officer, Gov. Brian Sandoval, is in his first term and is running for a second in 2014.
It isn’t the first time the musical chairs scenario has played out for constitutional officers. This group was the first to come under the term limits law in the 2006 election and four incumbents were forced out of office.
Then-Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt took a shot at the Governor’s Mansion, but lost in the Republican primary to Jim Gibbons, who went on to win the office that year.
Krolicki ran for and won the lieutenant governor’s job after being forced out of the treasurer’s office.
Then-Secretary of State Dean Heller opted for a run for Congress, winning the 2nd Congressional District seat that year.
The attorney general’s position was an open office when GOP appointee George Chanos opted against running for a full term.
Then-Controller Kathy Augustine, also facing term limits, was looking at running for treasurer when she was murdered by her husband.
Wallin said she decided to run for treasurer in 2014 so she can use her expertise gained from service in the controller’s office to continue to work to improve the state’s financial management efforts.
Wallin, a certified public accountant, said term limits are pushing out dedicated public servants who would otherwise, in many cases, run for re-election.
There aren’t always a lot of qualified candidates for these positions, she said. CPAs can make a lot more money working in the private sector, she said.
Wallin said it took her several years to get the controller’s office to function efficiently, and now she has to leave the job. Term limits means that the public loses out on the skills and experience gained by elected officials, she said.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900.