By Evelyn Pyburn
Almost a fourth of Montana’s incumbent state legislators in Montana were ineligible to file for re-election this year because of term limits. It’s been over 30 years since Montana adopted term limits, amid much controversy and with lots of contrasting predictions about their impact.
So how have term limits impacted the state legislature and representative democracy?
Not very much, according to Brad Molnar, Laurel, who is a Montana State Senator, representing District 28. In fact, Molnar says there really are no term limits, given the options that state legislators may serve eight years in the House, eight years in the Senate, and then repeat.
In Montana, this year, according to Center Square, term limits accounted for 75 percent of the open districts in Montana, the largest percentage since 2014. The largest effect was on the state Senate, where they left 12 of the 25 districts holding elections open. In the House, 18 of the 100 districts up for election were left open.
Molnar is perhaps the only legislator who can compare the two eras as an active legislator. Not many people served in the state legislature 30 years ago and is a state legislator today. Molnar was first elected to public office in ‘93, as a Republican Representative. Term limits became a reality with the passage of Constitutional Initiative-64 in 1992.
After serving eight years in the House and being himself term-limited out, instead of running for the other house, as many legislators do, Molnar ran for the Public Service Commission, to which he was elected in 2004 and then re-elected in 2008.
Molnar then ran for Senator to represent District 28, in 2020. He assumed office on January 4, 2021 and his current term ends on January 6, 2025.
As a freshman legislator just learning the ropes 30 years ago, Molnar had an opportunity to gain some unique insights. He served with legislators who had already served 20 or 30 years when term limits went into effect and who were still able to serve another 8 years – so there were plenty of long-termers in the state legislature during Molnar’s tenure, and they were quite used to having things their way.
“In some ways the legislature was more constrained 30 years ago and in other ways it is more constrained now” says Senator Molnar.
Molnar discovered as a freshman legislator 30 years ago that the success of a bill depended upon “decisions of the leadership.” “The leaders determined if it would pass or not. It was not a partisan issue. You would stand in line because they had been in power so long and had developed friends over for so long – now you don’t see so much of that.”
The parties tend to stick together more now, said Molnar. Any horse trading that goes on tends to go on within the parties and there is considerably less bipartisanship negotiations.
And there are fewer caucuses. We used to have caucuses all the time. We would interrupt a debate and caucus to understand and talk it out. All of that has changed,” said Molnar. “Only two or three Senate caucuses were held last session.”
“We no longer talk together. We are preached to,” he added.
“First, ‘they’ would tell you not to bring a bill up,” if it was troublesome for some reason. But “if it came up, because the other side brought it up, then we had discussions, which we could do in caucuses because you could say things and you could change your mind as they were closed to the press.“
But now decisions are made in the “Solutions Caucus.” The Solutions Caucus, today, plays a key role in shaping state policy, according to Molnar — it is the center of power in the state legislature. “They call the shots…. that is where the money is. They join with Democrats on spending issues so the minority of the Republicans negates the majority of Republicans and tempers rise. Their ‘solutions’ are always bigger government. I am not aware of any of their solutions that do not now need solutions. ”
The Solutions Caucus has been described as a bloc of comparatively moderate Republicans who break rank with Conservatives to vote with Democrats in support of a measure. Explained one member of the caucus in a news report, “You get into the ring and you work to solve problems.”
Molnar has always been tenacious about any issue that violates the constitution – especially going back 30 years when the Constitution seemed far less in vogue as a political issue. Nowadays, the Constitution is on everyone’s lips, so is there more awareness of issues in relation to their Constitutionality?
Not at all, said Molnar, noting that there is a small cadre of legislators who do focus on issues from a Constitutional perspective, and they work together to try to bring awareness to others. “We fight for the rights of everybody,” he said. But, it is not a popular pursuit. There were several bills passed in the last state legislature, declared Molnar, which were “highly unconstitutional, and known to be so.”
In fact, Molnar said he is in agreement with about a third of the Court decisions that over turned 24 (so far) of the laws passed in the last session. He expressed concern, though, that the courts are activists attempting to write state law, usurping the legislature’s role.
Molnar lamented that today there is little depth to the discussion of issues. “It is all about talking points, not facts,” he said, “Before we dug into the facts. We listened to opposing points of view. There is a desire (now) to silence any dissent. Now it degenerates into name calling. I get in trouble for violating rules, when in fact the issue is the interpretation of a rule that seems to challenge dissent. Compared to past sessions, I have walked into an alternative reality.”
“Because I respect the constitutional limits placed on the legislature, I am a dinosaur now,” said Molnar.
One argument in opposition to term limits that was often raised was the claim that they would give the bureaucracy greater power. That didn’t happen, said Molnar. “The bureaucracy is more powerful, but not because of term limits, but because of the personal weaknesses of the legislators.”
Molnar said that the Republicans are so glad now to have a Republican Governor and to have a majority that that they are reluctant to rock the boat. This result is the silencing of many voices. “The Governor has a right to nominate his cabinet but legislators should ask challenging questions – you need people to ask questions, and get honest answers” said Molnar. Legislators are reluctant to ask questions and discouraged from doing so, according to Molnar.
CI-64 prohibited the following public officials from seeking re-election if they already held the office for 8 years in any 16-year period: Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Representative, State Senator and US Congressional Representative.
In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down term limits on congressional terms, saying that states do not have the constitutional authority to regulate the tenure of federal legislators.