Is eight years enough?
For Hialeah Sen. Rene Garcia, a Republican, and West Palm Beach Rep. Mark Pafford, a Democrat, the answer is “no” — if Floridians want to diminish the influence of special interests in the Legislature.
“We are a representative democracy and we should be making sure that it is the elected officials who move agendas forward, and not the lobbyists,” said Garcia, who was elected to the Senate unopposed in 2010 and 2012 after serving eight years in the House.
The two lawmakers have proposed a bill that expands Florida’s eight-year term limits on legislators to 12 years, beginning in 2016. If they can persuade enough of their colleagues to place the constitutional amendment (HJR 711 and SJR 902) on the ballot, it would apply only to newly elected senators and representatives.
But the measure will be a tough sell. The anti-incumbency movement that swept the country in the 1990s and was added to the Florida Constitution by 77 percent of the vote in 1992 also ushered in most of those elected to the Legislature today.
The first wave of newcomers came in 2000, when a record 83 legislators who were in office in 1992 were forced to retire. Since then, dozens of the 120-member House and 40-member Senate leave because of term limits each year.
Those who leave before their eight years is up have left because redistricting has realigned their districts or they are seeking another office, often the state Senate. The number of incumbents removed from office before their term is minimal, as most incumbents rarely face a serious challenge.
Supporters say term limits have been a success, rotating Florida’s political stock, retiring long-time politicians and shuffling new blood into office. But opponents say it has also changed policy-making in Tallahassee. Agendas are determined less by the will of voters and more by the will of special interests with ample money to spend on campaigns.
Both sides agree that capping the amount of time legislators spend on the job has empowered the unelected — long-time staff and lobbyists.
Garcia says that most lawmakers privately agree with him but winning the three-fifths vote of each chamber to get the measure on the ballot, and the 60 percent voter support to make it to the state Constitution, will be difficult and may take a few years.
“A lot of us agree that having that extension and a little more time will not only benefit our constituency in our district but also the rest of the state,” he said.
Florida voters passed term limits after a statewide campaign called “Throw the Rascals Out” and “Eight is Enough” galvanized voter frustration over legislative deadlock and cronyism in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee.
In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out state-imposed term limits for Congress, but the Florida Supreme Court upheld the legislative and Cabinet limits.
Critics say that rather than weaken the power of incumbency, term limits have strengthened it by virtually guaranteeing incumbents get an eight-year ride.
Steve Schale, who ran House Democratic campaigns for former House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, said that term limits make it difficult to recruit good candidate to run for the Legislature.
“It’s almost impossible to recruit somebody good to run against someone in their last term,” he said. “The typical response I would get is: ‘Well, I would just wait that person out.”
By contrast, an incumbent in office for 30 years “who has a huge amount of name ID is tough to beat for a lot of reasons. If you had a 12-year term limit, it’s a lot easier taking on an incumbent.”
They complain that newcomers select their leaders before they are seasoned, and the loss of experience and confidence weakens policy making, especially on complicated issues.
Pafford, the House Democratic leader who retires because of term limits next year, said that if he had four more years he would be better at working the fine points of the budget process, have more confidence in tackling complex issues and serve as a more vigorous voice on leadership.
“In my particular case, it’s OK because I’m burned out,” he said. But he says that it is the obligation of legislators to address a problem when they see it, and their proposed amendment is doing that.
“We should take moments to pause and think whether a system of democracy is giving everything we can back to the people,” he said. “I don’t think any process is perfect, and we need to look at ourselves sometimes in the mirror and see if we can make improvements. This is really a subtle change. There’s still term limits, but can we add some value to the process and some experience.”
Before term limits, conference committees would be comprised of five or six members who would hash out the budget differences line by line. Now, the conference committees are comprised of dozens of lawmakers but the decisions are rubber stamps, as decisions are made by leadership behind the scenes to allow them to address the parochial interests of members out of the sunlight.
Term limits have also changed the way presiding officer are elected. Before term limits, the House and Senate rarely picked presiding officers more than two years out and had the luxury of choosing leaders based on length of service, level of expertise, and the amount of election help they gave members. But term limits have ramped up the pressure on those who want to be House speaker or Senate president to line up pledges from members of their own party even before they’ve passed their first bills.
Former House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who was an aide to former House Speaker Allan Bense and became Bense’s son-in-law, was appointed to fill an unexpired term in 2006 and was designated speaker that year, before his name even appeared on an election ballot. So-called “redshirt freshmen” like Weatherford are often given the advantage because they have the opportunity to work the process months, even a year, before the rest of their class gets to office. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, was a redshirt freshman, and so was Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who is designated to be House speaker in 2018.
The leadership battles, especially in the House, are now waged almost exclusively outside of the public eye. Legislators use their political committees to solicit unlimited amounts of cash from lobbyists and use it to finance their campaigns for top posts in the legislative hierarchy, often luring supporters to pricey fundraisers on Gulf Coast yachts or at Miami mansions, New York hotels and sports stadiums around the country.
Opponents say that the loss of experience and confidence weakens policy-making, especially on complicated issues. Members are more self-interested and focus on projects that will benefit their personal political ambitions, rather than consider the long-term policy implications for the state.
“If you have a member that’s more seasoned, understands the process a little more or is less intimidated by the process, you could go ahead and push back on certain legislation, certain appropriations,” Garcia said. “The fact that we have term limits expedites the whole process. People try to ram bills through without sometimes vetting them properly.”
In 2005, legislators passed a similar measure for the 2006 ballot but the House and Senate repealed it a year later when lawmakers worried they would tarnish their image with voters. This year, after lawmakers spent two tumultuous special sessions battling the most self interested issue in politics, redistricting, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, is skeptical.
“The last time the Legislature tried to extend term limits, there was so much public backlash that they repealed the proposal before it ever made it to the ballot,” Crisafulli said in a statement Thursday. “We’ll see how it will fare this year.”
Schale, the Democratic consultant, notes that 10 years ago his polling showed that the idea of extending term limits “was radioactive” and this year “there is so much voter distrust in government that I think you could pass term limits — limiting to one year.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 15 states with term limits for legislators today. Attempts to expand term limits to 12 years by modifying state constitutions have failed in California, Arkansas and Montana.
In two states — Idaho and Utah — voters have repealed legislative term limits, and in Arkansas, term limits were extended from six years in the House and eight years in the Senate to 16 years cumulative total.
Garcia said the task of persuading the electorate could take years in Florida, but he believes it is worth the effort.
“It is not about us,” he said. “It is about our experiences here and what we see are the good, the bad and the ugly of it and how we can make it better for future legislatures.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and (850) 222-3095. Follow her @MaryEllenKlas