Heading into the final week before elections I see a lot of questions about the amendment proposal that extends term limits for the state legislature. The thought of raising term limits appears scary in a world of high distrust in elected officials, but in reality it puts more power back in the hands of voters.
The amendment will show as Issue #3 on your ballot, and in addition to the term limits increase it puts in place a number of pro-citizen restrictions on candidates. Mostly providing some strong campaign finance reform that helps alleviate some of the campaign scandals over the last few years. It makes elected official’s salaries now set by an independent group (instead of officials often setting their own salaries). Finally, and maybe most importantly, it bans elected officials from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office. All very good, fairly non-controversial, things. You can read all the legal jumble if you want here.
But how about those term limit raises?
The proposal increases term limits to 16 years for members of the general assembly. That feels like a lot to most people. House of Representatives can currently serve 6 years, while state Senators can serve eight. People see a rub when the number 16 is thrown out, because it feels double, or more, than what is currently there.
Read the language however and you will find that under the new law, term limits in both chambers is now combined. So previously the most you could serve in both would be 14 years, now it is 16. Yes it is an additional two years, but that is only for even term purposes.
So now the way it works is a State Representative or State Senator will serve out their term, and if they feel they are electable move on to the other position and run out the term there. Now they can choose to serve the full set of terms in one, both, or neither. And here is why that matters so much to citizens.
1. Good Legislators Can Focus – Senate and House have very different responsibilities and goals with the people they serve. The size difference between a house district and a senate district is vast. This allows an individual to focus in on the type of representation they want to provide.
Here is an example. Say I am a long time resident of Monticello and I want to do what I can to support that community with the state. Currently I run my six years and now my only option to serve Monticello on a state level is to run for senate. Well guess what, the district 26 area is huge. So now instead of representing Monticello I am now covering all or part of seven counties. The needs of Warren are vastly different from say Lake Village, and I have to now balance that and several other towns in the area with the one place I wanted to represent. Or I decide to ignore those other areas and do what is best for my own. So I have turned from a good State Rep into a poor State Senator.
Or vice versa, say I really want to focus in on issues facing the lower delta region and I have to suddenly pick a city to represent. Same issue. By doing this it allows legislators to represent the area they feel the most passion about. And if voters agree that they do a good job, they elect and re-elect the person.
2. Allows Citizens to Keep Good Legislators Longer – On the flip side of the last point, what if a legislator is serving their district well? Do you not think the people of Cabot would love to hang on to Davy Carter for 10 more years as their State Rep? Heck I would love to see him as speaker for that long. This allows people to reward good representatives more time in office.
It also reduces the number of bad legislators. You are never completely sure how a new legislator will serve a district. Turning over state representatives every 6 years for instance means constantly seeking a new person to represent you. That means over a 16 year period you have greater than a 50% chance of a representative being awful. Add that to the fact that there are only so many available candidates who (A) want to run in the first place, (B) can afford to run, and (C) have not served their limit before, the chances of a candidate going unopposed is fairly high. In fact out of 100 State House races 65 are unopposed. Sorry if you do not like your representative, because you are stuck.
3. Creates More Knowledgable Legislators – Finally, and to me one of the biggest reason, you create more knowledgable legislators. Few legislators will say it openly, but many have said it to me privately, the first few years of being a legislator is hard and confusing. You take (typically) business people and try to make them conform to parliamentary procedure. They have little clue how to introduce a bill, pass a bill, even structure a good bill. Combine that with the fact that they “mentors” often have just a couple of years experience over them and it is a real mess.
You end up with Representatives introducing multiple versions of the same bill, some overriding a bill they previously introduced. You find bills with massive loopholes, bills that do more harm than the originally intended good, or (as is often the case) conflict with other laws and bills creating a confusing mess for even the most legally savvy to navigate.
This has caused a good deal of the knowledge power to shift from the elected officials to un-elected legislative aides and lobbyist who help guide incoming representatives through the darkness. I do not need to tell you how that can go bad. Then, if they are a representative, they start panicking about re-election and house leadership positions. Increasing limits allows for more knowledge to stay with elected officials pass good laws themselves, and mentor more junior representatives into producing equally good laws.
Out of all of the proposed amendments, I think this is easily the strongest. It shifts power back to citizens while retaining a very similar term limit check on the elected officials. It is something I would honestly love to see applied to all non-governor state elected officials. So that, for instance, a person cannot make a career out of serving as a wide variety of elected positions, but it does give them strong time in office if they do have a desire to serve.