Extended term limits would upgrade Florida's Legislature
By Michael Lewis
When I became a Florida editor in 1974 and asked reporters to consult experts on environment, education or state funding, those experts often were legislators.
Today, a journalist seeking experts in Tallahassee on key issues would more likely turn to staffers or lobbyists. Legislative expertise has withered.
A cynic would attribute that knowledge shift to weaker elected officials. The statesmen who once walked the Legislature's halls, after all, have vanished.
A more balanced view, however, would link the decline in both expertise and statesmanship to voter-mandated term limits that were passed in 1992 and took effect in 2000.
That constitutional amendment forced every legislator with eight years of experience out of office. As soon as they have institutional history and knowledge, we send them home, leaving behind the staffers and lobbyists who have become the influentials.
In trying to limit rascals to no more than eight years at the public trough, we've given a whole new group of rascals free rein - rascals who are not elected but simply exercise control.
In fairness, the Legislature of 1974 had its share of members who might not have been the best and the brightest, just like the Legislature of today. The average intellect of a legislator, in fact, now may be higher.
But however bright they are, today's lawmakers are all relative newcomers. They start jockeying for legislative leadership posts the day they're elected because there is no longer a long ladder of seniority to climb and there's no time to waste in an eight-year run. Leaders of the Legislature's future today are selected based on an almost nonexistent track record. They're leaders before they're fully up to speed.
Being a legislator, don't forget, is a part-time job. The Legislature is in session only a few months (and while the joke is that nobody is safe while the Legislature is in session, in truth, we should have year-round sessions to meet the rapidly changing needs of an urban state). So eight years of legislative time is about a year-and-a-half of real experience.
Try to absorb Florida's problems and opportunities, build relationships with colleagues, talk with constituents back home, deal with staff and study legislation by the barrel in just a year-and-a-half. It's not enough time to develop expertise.
So when the Senate last week agreed with the House to put back before voters term limits but expand them to 12 consecutive years in either chamber, members took a wise course. Since the 2006 statewide vote will apply only to legislators whose first term begins that year, this is not self-serving. In fact, Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, called it courageous because while sitting legislators won't benefit, they could face the ire of voters who in 1992 overwhelmingly approved the present limits.
But even some supporters back then, including present House Speaker Allan Bense, now realize that they forfeited too much experience and shifted too much power to non-elected persons when they kept legislators from serving until voters turned them out.
"I was firm on Eight Is Enough," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "But I see that some of these issues are in fact complex and there's still a cutoff time" in the measure - 12 years instead of the present eight.
The measure that the Legislature sent to voters would also extend terms of all cabinet members except the governor, who would still face an eight-year limit. The measure won't require Gov. Jeb Bush's signature - it would go straight to the 2006 ballot.
But while the measure would lengthen possible time in office, it would also add competition. People who want incumbent legislators' seats now are waiting until they are term-limited out of office. Once the term limit goes up to 12 years, a wait could be too long so we would see more competitors on the ballot.
That could bring an unintended but salutary consequence to a change in term limits: The best legislators might get to serve four more years, but the worst could wind up quickly leaving office because they'd be unseated in elections.
Who could disagree with that outcome?