Voter-approved term limits, perhaps even more than the advent of minority-access districts or the lobbyist gift ban, have radically transformed legislative business in Tallahassee.
Their enactment during the Gov. Jeb Bush administration turned future election cycles into rigid leadership game theory boards and, some say, placed a limit on the institutional knowledge of lawmakers, who often become lame ducks just as they master the process.
Members of a Senate elections panel approved a resolution to ask voters to increase the maximum consecutive years a legislator can serve from eight to 12 on Tuesday.
The Senate Ethics & Elections committee passed Sen. Rene Garcia‘s SB 902, a resolution calling for another ballot initiative to tweak a constitutional amendment that mandates lawmakers serve no more than the equivalent of four two-year House terms or two four-year Senate terms in a row.
“In my time in the Legislature, I’ve realized that I am a product of term limits, I’m here because of term limits” said Garcia. “But I realize a problem that exists that the ‘eight years is enough’ calculation brings on.
“What has happened during my time in the process is I’ve seen where lobbyists become more influential in the process than some members themselves. Staff could also become more influential than the members,” said Garcia, adding that lawmakers’ finite time in Tallahassee allows unelected agency heads and other state bureaucrats to “wait out” adverse members.
Democrat Sen. Jeff Clemens and Republican Sen. Alan Hays agreed.
Hays said term limits – which he and many other conservatives originally supported – have done a “great disservice” to Florida constituents.
“The optimum term limit is an election,” said Hays, who suggested extending the maximum consecutive service even more, to 16 years.
“Anybody for 18?” Chairman Garrett Richter, who voted in favor of the bill, jokingly shot back.
The bill would not apply to current members to prevent the bill from being self-serving, in Garcia’s phrase.
SB 902 moves next to the Senate Rules committee, though the measure is unlikely to pass in the lower chamber – where House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford is carrying a companion bill – but it seemed to find a sympathetic audience among the senators.
“There’s no evidence that term limits lead to better government,” said Clemens. “I really believe strongly that it takes experience once you get up here to understand how the system works, and this is a bill that will probably result in more experienced legislators who know how to do good things for their districts.”
“I understand the long journey this bill has here,” Garcia said in closing, “but it’s worth having this conversation.”