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Time running out for plan to scrap term limits

A measure that would allow Arizona lawmakers to serve an unlimited number of terms in office appears dead in the Legislature, even though most lawmakers have said they want to repeal the term limits provision in the state’s Constitution.

Republicans and Democrats supported SCR1007 for largely the same reasons: Restricting lawmakers to four two-year terms in office has shifted power to staff members and lobbyists because they gain institutional knowledge that lawmakers lose when they cycle in and out of office.

The measure might have had enough support to get through the Legislature, except for the fact that lawmakers knew it was going to be far more difficult to convince voters, who ultimately would have had to make a decision at the ballot box. Even lawmakers who support the measure didn’t want it on the ballot this year because voters likely would reject it.

“I don’t think it’s going to win at the ballot. If it’s not going to win, there’s no reason to put it on the ballot,” said House Majority Leader John McComish, who supports the elimination of term limits.

Nearly two-thirds of Arizona’s voters supported the creation of term limits in 1992, and polling since then has shown widespread support for limiting lawmakers’ time in office. On top of that, voters across the nation have indicated that they are upset with leadership in government, and lawmakers say the anti-incumbent attitude that is especially prevalent this year would result in dismal failure for any measure intended to keep politicians in office longer.

Critics of term limits, however, say the reality is that the limits have created more problems than solutions. They argue primarily that forcing lawmakers to leave office has drained the Capitol of its long-term memory.

Before term limits, veteran lawmakers who had served for decades offered valuable guidance to new members. Now, though, lawmakers are considered veterans if they have served for six or seven years, except for those who routinely run for a seat in the other chamber after reaching the end of their terms.

If knowledge is power, then term limits shifted power away from the legislators – those elected to govern – and placed it with those whose jobs don’t have an expiration date: lobbyists and legislative staff.

“The new ones, when they come in, just rely on the staff and the lobbyists,” said Sen. Carolyn Allen, a Scottsdale Republican and the sponsor of SCR1007. “I’ve seen it firsthand, and it’s just gotten worse in 16 years. It is worse than it’s ever been. It’s just kind of been accepted that that’s the way this bus runs.”

A lack of time and money also has become an obstacle for the repeal of term limits. Lawmakers are planning to end the session in early May, and SCR1007 has yet to receive a final vote. The Senate approved the measure, 18-11, on March 1. It was approved by a House committee on April 7, but it has stalled since then.

On top of that, it wasn’t entirely clear where the funding to back the ballot proposition would have come from, said House Speaker Kirk Adams. Meanwhile, the opposition campaign would have been well-funded.

U.S. Term Limits, the national group that spearheaded Arizona’s term limit effort in 1992, had vowed to fight any attempt to overturn the limits.

“Career politicians are as unresponsive to the concerns of the people as life-serving aristocrats and monarchs. The people want the law to limit terms in office, because they support the principle of a citizen legislature,” U.S. Term Limits President Philip Blumel said in a statement.

There is a sense among critics of term limits that, even though the measure may not head to the ballot this year, just getting the discussion started was a victory of sorts.

“We knew it was a difficult sell when we started it, but we felt the purpose was to get this conversation started,” said Deb Gullett, a lobbyist for Government for Arizona’s Second Century.

Government for Arizona’s Second Century is the lobbying arm of the O’Connor House Project, a group of about 100 civic, business and political leaders who were called together last year by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. After the group had agreed on a set of government reforms, members began lobbying for the changes this session.

The movement to repeal the term limits law began almost immediately after voters approved it in 1992. This year, opponents of term limits were hoping the support of a heavyweight group like the O’Connor House would create enough momentum to convince lawmakers and voters to vote for the repeal.

Rep. Chad Campbell, a Democrat from Phoenix and one of the participants in the O’Connor House Project, said it would be a “recipe for disaster” to ask voters to eliminate the term limits. Continuing the debate about term limits publicly at the Legislature is important to educating voters about the ways the limits lead to poor governance, he said.

“While this might be something we want to discuss with the voters, I think this is neither the time nor the place to have that discussion,” he said. “I think it would fail miserably.”

Voters like term limits
Past voting trends and more recent polling show voters support term limits for state lawmakers.
In 1992, 74 percent of voters approved the limits for legislators and executive statewide officers.

In 2005, a poll showed 76 percent of voters wanted to keep the limits.

An August 2009 poll, the most recent on the subject, showed nearly 60 percent of voters actually support tightening the existing limits by preventing elected officials from running for another office for at least two years after leaving office due to term limits.

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