July 26, 2001 11:00 pm

The headlines screamed across the states newspapers: Judge nixes term limits in Oregon. Once again a court has stepped into the fray, deciding to overturn a nine-year old law that had limited the number of terms an Oregon senator or representative could serve in the Legislature. It seems a little odd that after all this time the term-limits law is suddenly unconstitutional. If anything, it would appear the judges decision was more political than constitutional.

Conveniently, members of the Legislature have been discussing the issue during this years session and were planning to refer a measure to the people hoping to change the law. If the lower courts ruling is heard by the states Supreme Court and a decision is rendered before March 12, the filing deadline for running for office, then 13 senators and 13 representatives could file and run for re-election. Included among them is current House Speaker Mark Simmons of Elgin.

Term limits is certainly a questionable way to deal with incumbent legislators, but using the courts, nine years after the law was approved by voters, gives an appearance that will not sit well with many Oregonians. We feel there needs to be some balance over the issue. Some form of term limits might be appropriate, since fewer and fewer voters are voting these days. During the past two presidential elections, fewer than half of the voters in the nation voted. Numbers arent a whole lot better in Oregon, where vote-by-mail was to be the cure for voter apathy.

Perhaps the most damning thing about term limits is the lack of experience each legislator can develop. It takes at least one term for a legislator to know his or her way around the Capitol and another to learn how to function. Remember, Oregon legislators are in session for only about six months every other year. That doesnt leave much time for them to do their job. And it certainly doesnt give them enough time to learn how to introduce bills, run committees or subcommittees or lead one of the two houses. Inexperience is changing the complexion of the legislature and not necessarily for the good.

If more people participated in elections, then perhaps there wouldnt be a need for any form of term limits. An issue that has another impact on who runs for the Legislature and for how long is economics. Legislators are paid a little more than $1,200 a month. Even with per diem during the session and having your spouse work as your legislative aide, the average citizen could hardly survive.

The lower court is wrong to think that after nine years its OK to strike down term limits. What should be happening instead is that the people should get another chance to vote on a revised plan. Increasing the number of terms a person can serve to six for representatives or three for senators is one answer. Electing full-time legislators is another. Most certainly, the responsibility lies with Oregonians to get more involved in government.

One thing we do know is that this judge who ruled against term limits may have limited his own term in office.