Unsurprisingly, members of the state House put on their dancing shoes and moonwalked around their government reform panel’s call to limit the terms of state legislators.
The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct was appointed by House Speaker Scott Saiki after two lawmakers were convicted of bribery.
The panel, led by retired Justice Daniel Foley, voted 4-3 to recommend 16-year term limits for House members and senators, double what governors, mayors and City Council members are subject to.
Despite the generously long terms, House Judiciary Chairman David Tarnas dismissed the measure, saying it would “prevent good legislators from being able to serve while voters support them.”
“Over the past 10 years, 56% of senators and 65% of state representatives have been replaced through elections,” Tarnas said. “Voters have already succeeded in limiting the terms of most legislators.”
The claim that voters would miss the indispensably good legislators is dubious. When was the last time you heard the electorate clamor for a governor, mayor or council member who could serve more than eight years?
The data on high turnover is misleading, since most of the replaced legislators left to take other jobs, not because voters rejected them.
Voters rarely have realistic opportunities to clean house. More often than not, when incumbent lawmakers seek re-election, they are protected by massive special interest money that discourages competitive challengers; many run unopposed.
Tarnas cited the Foley Commission’s 4-3 split vote and opposition to the measure from the Ethics Commission, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, who said term limits elsewhere have not reduced corruption. .
But they did study the type of corruption the commission was asked to address: criminal bribery by former Sen. J. Kalani English and former Rep. Ty Cullen.
The term limits point more to the legalized corruption of our campaign finance system, which allows lawmakers to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from special interest donors with business before the state.
Some amass money and power over decades, lording over state agencies like personal fiefdoms, often acting out of favor or spite. They have the power to stand as almost the only elected officials in the state who are not subject to term limits.
Term limits ensure that the system is periodically flushed so that no one gains excessive money, power, or property interests to maintain their positions. Staggered term limits provide voters with open seats and vigorous competition at every election.
There are other good bills still on the table to reform campaign finance and expand publicly funded campaigns, but they wouldn’t entirely replace the refreshing benefits of term limits.
Technically, a Senate term-limiting bill is still alive, but it takes both houses to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and the Senate will likely just let the House get the bad guy first.
Hawaii voters like term limits. They have passed constitutional amendments and constitutional provisions to impose them on elected state executives and most county elected officials, and have strongly rejected efforts to ease limits.
If legislators respect voters as much as they say, put the term limit constitutional amendment on the ballot so voters can make the decision instead of selfish legislators.
Contact David Shapiro at [email protected].