It’s never wrong to be wary of unchecked power. And in one form or another, term limits is an antidote that’s been around since the ancient Greeks.
But in the pantheon of bad ideas, there should be a spot reserved for the idea of term limits for legislative leaders.
Most states balk at imposing time constraints on rank-and-file legislators, most of whom have to face the voters every two years. Only 28 percent of the seats across 16 state legislatures are currently term-limited, with no apparent benefit. Within that group are paragons of good government like Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana.
There’s plenty of evidence this “reform” does little to improve governance, and in some ways makes it worse. A 2004 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 14 years after voters approved legislator term limits, “Legislative leaders continue to raise and allocate campaign money as they did before, and term limits have had little or no effect on the breadth or complexity of bills….the Legislature now screens fewer bills and is less likely to alter the Governor’s budget….there is more room for fiscal irresponsibility in the Legislature now and less incentive, experience, and leadership to correct it.”
Otherwise, it works great!
But what about term limits on the leaders these legislators choose? Only 10 state bodies have them, including both branches in Maine. As goes Maine, so goes Massachusetts?
Voters here narrowly (47%-44%) approved term limits on all elected officials in 1994 only to have the SJC rule it unconstitutional. And the idea sporadically resurfaces for legislative leaders; the House imposed an eight-year term limit on the speakership in 1985 and again in 2009, in both cases amid negative publicity over the conduct of previous speakers.
But they didn’t last, and now the Senate has also ditched its eight-year limit on its presidency. Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues – the only member to speak prior to the 32-6 vote on February 9 – argued that being the only body with a leadership limit weakens the Senate’s voice and spawns debilitating internal power struggles long before the limit kicks in.
Those arguments must have been compelling. Despite a February 20 Globe editorial arguing that the term-limit repeal was a “bad move that should be reversed,” support seems lacking.
Just three of the six senators who voted to keep the limit bothered to respond to a Massterlist request for comment. “I firmly believe that term limits…allow different approaches and visions to rise in leadership and in governance,” said Senator Becca Rausch (D-Needham), a firm opinion lacking solid evidence to back it up. And Sen. Ryan Fattmann (R-Sutton) raised the spectre of William Bulger’s 18-year reign that ended in 1996. “Reversing this rule isn’t a step towards progress, it’s an unfortunate step back in time,” wrote Fattman.
Comparing Bulger’s tight-fisted regime to that of current Senate President Karen Spilka would be laughable if it weren’t so unfair. The Globe editorial inexplicably compared Spilka’s relatively productive years in power unfavorably to those of the late House Speaker George Keverian and former Senate President Stan Rosenberg, two very nice guys who presided ineptly over chaos.
If any of the six senators who voted to keep Spilka term-limited had any examples of her heavy-handedness or incompetence in mind, they’re keeping them to themselves. Meanwhile, Senate caucuses drag on forever because Spilka is so insistent that everyone be heard, and bills she is known to detest – sports betting, for instance – somehow become law.
The puny, fact-free spasm of outrage over the end of Senate term limits is what happens when a dubious solution goes searching for a non-existent problem.
More accountability is a good thing. But this is just, as the ancient Greeks would put it, moros.
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