If anybody understands how term limits can be sidestepped by South Dakota’s legislators, Sen. Bill Van Gerpen would certainly be one. In the 2012 elections, his legislative district’s voters gave the see-ya to two of the longest-serving lawmakers. In a Republican House primary, Sen. Jim Putnam, R-Armour, lost. He had served 26 consecutive years, rotating between the House and the Senate. In the November general election Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall, won the Senate seat by toppling Rep. Frank Kloucek, D-Scotland. Kloucek had served 22 consecutive years, switching back and forth between the House and the Senate. Kloucek was at the Capitol the other day for the Delmont community celebration, and he pointedly denied that he and Putnam ever cut any deals to switch at the same time. Somehow, though, it worked out that way. Kloucek never served more than one term in a row in the House, while Putnam never served more than one term in a row in the Senate.
Now Van Gerpen offers the Legislature an opportunity to address whether legislators should be allowed to continue to move back and forth between the chambers so freely. The South Dakota Constitution limits legislators to no more than four consecutive terms in the House and no more than four consecutive terms in the Senate, but the constitution is silent on how long legislators can consecutively serve overall. Van Gerpen has introduced Senate Joint Resolution 4. It proposes adding this line to the constitution: “No person may serve more than sixteen consecutive years in the Legislature.” (The term limits, by the way, already don’t apply to terms for which legislators have been appointed.)
Does the Van Gerpen amendment stand a chance of making the 2014 statewide election ballot? He doesn’t have much in the way of legislative heavyweights on his resolution, but he does have the two other members of his legislative district, Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, and Rep. Kyle Schoenfish, R-Scotland, among the 10 co-sponsors. There aren’t many current legislators who could be immediately affected (also, it’s unclear whether the 16-year limit would cover years already served prior to the change if it is passed). One who comes to mind is Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, who is in his thirteenth consecutive year and would be eligible for one more term if the amendment was adopted by voters and if he ran again in 2014 and won — which is likely, because he always wins. To reach the ballot, Van Gerpen’s resolution would need majority votes in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives. The governor doesn’t get a say on legislative resolutions.
Term limits definitely have changed the Legislature’s operations since 1992 when voters installed them in the constitution. Many people wonder whether the Legislature would be more effective if term limits were repealed. Many people also wondered why voters in Van Gerpen’s district kept re-electing Kloucek, who was great at constituent relations but had difficulty getting bills passed. That was their choice. As for Putnam, he had a way of getting things done quietly through the relationships he’d built through the decades. Keeping him in office was their choice, too. No one seems to wonder why the voters in Rhoden’s district keep electing him. He is one of the Legislature’s most effective members. While in the House, he was the Republican leader, and in the Senate he is chairman of perhaps the most powerful committee, State Affairs. Van Gerpen’s resolution aims directly at a rare situation that the voters eventually decided for themselves, in part by electing him over Kloucek. Whether fellow legislators want to cap someone such as Larry Rhoden at 16 years will be worth watching in the coming weeks.