SEATTLE -- Signaling growing disenchantment with term limits in statehouses across the West, the Idaho legislature on Friday defied the governor's veto and became the first state in the nation to repeal its seven-year-old law.
State representatives, citing problems in recruiting qualified new lawmakers in Idaho's far-flung rural districts, voted 50-20 to override Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's veto. That was followed by a 26-8 vote in the Senate.
Several members of the legislature, the most heavily Republican in the nation, would have been barred from running for reelection in 2004 under the law -- which limits state and local officials to eight years in office. Numerous county commissioners and school trustees, who are limited to six years of service, would have been kept out of the 2002 elections.
"We are all pleased that we have had the courage ..., veteran legislators along with freshmen and sophomores, to take this action -- which is in the long-term interest of the state of Idaho," Republican House Speaker Bruce Newcomb said after the vote.
He said term limits were "sold to the people of Idaho" by special interests outside the state. "What we have done today is begin the debate in Idaho, where it should have been taken up when all this started," Newcomb said.
A day earlier, Kempthorne had acted on his long-standing threat to veto the legislation, citing two statewide votes -- in 1994 and 1998 -- in which Idaho citizens signaled their endorsement of term limits.
"For me, this is a matter of the people's will. I cannot say to the people who elected me to office that I respect their decision in my case, but reject their collective judgment -- on the very same ballot -- when they affirmed their support for term limits," Kempthorne said in a letter to the House Speaker. "It is a question of process, and the will of the voters of Idaho cannot be ignored and must be protected."
After Friday's override, Kempthorne spokesman Mark Snider said the vote was expected. "Everybody knew it was going to happen," he said. "For the governor, this wasn't a personal issue, it was a philosophical issue. It's not something he lobbied the legislature on. His veto was based on a principle, and what happens from here on out happens."
Term limit advocates in Idaho have promised to put the issue before the voters again in a referendum next November. Don Morgan, chairman of the Idaho group Citizen's for Term Limits, said: "Now we go back to the people. This is going to set off a political firestorm in Idaho. Right now, this state legislature is the most Republican in the nation. I am not sure that will be true after the next elections."
California has a measure on the March ballot, Proposition 45, which would allow local voters to petition the secretary of state to allow term-limited incumbents to run for reelection . In Montana, where popular Republican Gov. Mark Racicot was barred from running last year, two state senators -- B.F. Christiaens and Mack Cole -- recently filed suit to overturn that state's 10-year-old term limits law.
And in Oregon the state Supreme Court earlier this month overturned the term-limits law, which took effect in 1991. The court didn't decide the case on the merits of term limits themselves, but found that initiative that imposed term limits violated a state law that requires each constitutional amendment to be voted upon separately.
Term limits were popular a decade ago, particularly among Western Republicans who sought to end the careers of liberal East Coast members of Congress. But the U.S. Supreme Court voided the congressional term limits in 1995. Idaho's law was adopted in 1994, with the approval of nearly 60 percent of the electorate, but it has been a contentious issue ever since.
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