"My reason for fixing them in office for a term of years, rather than for life, was that they might have an idea that they were at a certain period to return into the mass of the people and become the governed instead of the governors which might still keep alive that regard to the public good that otherwise they might perhaps be induced by their independence to forget." Thomas Jefferson
Article III of the New York State Constitution currently empowers the legislature to govern term limits by law. However, the legislature is so unlikely to establish or honor term limits created by law that the only likely way for them to be implemented would be through Constitutional Change. By amending the State's Legislative Law and the State Constitution to establish term limits we could ensure a true "citizen legislature."
Enacting term limits would break the virtual stranglehold that entrenched Albany incumbents have on the levers of political power in New York State government. Additionally, establishing term limits would inject new voice, new faces and new ideas into our state's government and civic process, and, in so doing, increased voter participation in New York's democratic process.
TERM LIMITS WOULD STRENGTHEN NEW YORK’S DEMOCRACY, RESTORE A TRUE “CITIZEN LEGISLATURE”
Op-Ed for EffectiveNY from Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb (R,C,I-Canandaigua)
“Term limits are a bad idea… whose time has come.” – Sean Hannity, talk radio host of the nationally syndicated Sean Hannity Show, host of Hannity on the FOX News Channel
Our representative democracy rests on an ideal that government derives its authority and legitimacy from the consent of the people. America’s Founding Fathers believed this consent was temporary and required reevaluation during elections where voters had a real choice and the final say. Government – and all those with the privilege of serving in it – answers to the people.
At least that is the way it is supposed to be.
RISE OF ALBANY CAREER POLITICIANS, DECLINE OF A TRUE “CITIZEN LEGISLATURE,” HURTS OUR DEMOCRACY
New York’s State Legislature has undergone a worrisome shift that runs contrary to what I, and many others believe, it was originally intended to be – and must return to – a “citizen legislature,” comprised of individuals from all walks of life who draw upon their real-world experiences to inform the laws they passed. After a period of public service, these citizen legislators would return to their full-time vocations and live under the laws they enacted.
However, instead of this ideal citizen legislature, New York has witnessed the rise of a perpetual professional class of politicians who view elective office as a lifetime career rather than a temporary privilege to serve the public. Career politicians – and the corollary of careerism politics – pose clear and present threats to the health of New York’s democracy.
TERM LIMITS: A NECESSARY CURE FOR NEW YORK’S AFFLICTED BODY POLITIC
I believe that term limits are a necessary dose of medicine to cure the chronic disease that has afflicted New York’s body politic: career politicians becoming so deeply entrenched in office and so consumed with holding onto political power that they have become part of New York’s problem instead of the solution. Just because the state Legislature has finally begun to move beyond years of dysfunction, gridlock and hyper-partisanship and started doing the people’s business does not mean that the job of fixing Albany is finished – far from it!
NEW YORK’S “96 PERCENT CLUB”
According to a report from the good-government group Citizen’s Union (“Examining Turnover in the New York State Legislature”), members of the New York State Legislature had a re-election rate of 96 percent from 1999 to 2010, one of the nation’s highest. This figure is actually greater than the average re-election rate for Members of the U.S. House of Representatives for a similar period, where 94.1 percent of House Members were returned to office, based on information compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
While not an outright impossibility, an incumbent losing re-election in the New York State Legislature is an extremely rare occurrence, largely due to the significant, numerous institutional (and financial) advantages incumbents enjoy over their lesser known, typically less-experienced challengers, advantages that include the following:
- Incumbents have years of built-up name identification with local voters;
- Incumbents have far larger campaign war chests;
- Incumbents have much closer ties to powerful special interests, lobbyists, political parties and political insiders; and
- Incumbents can leverage their tenure of service to deliver grants and so-called Member Item funding back to their constituents.
TERM LIMITS COULD INCREASE NEW YORK’S VOTER PARTICIPATION, BRING NEW VOICES, NEW IDEAS TO STATE GOVERNMENT
According to a report issued by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in the last three state and federal election cycles, New York ranked 47th among states in average voter turnout for recent federal elections. However, instead of being an indictment on New Yorkers’ civic commitment, I view it as a rational reaction to the current electoral system that far and away favors incumbents while hurting and discouraging challengers, regardless of political party.
If enacted, term limits could re-engage and reconnect apathetic New York voters to their government. By ensuring that new names, new faces and, most important, new ideas could have a fair shot at being elected, I believe term limits would lead to greater voter participation, more competitive elections and a renewed spirit of democracy for the Empire State. In short, term limits would help put an end to the same old, same old.
15 OTHER STATES HAVE LEGISLATIVE TERM LIMITS – WHY NOT NEW YORK?
At present, 15 states have term limits for legislators including Maine; California; Colorado; Arkansas; Michigan; Florida; Ohio; South Dakota; Montana; Arizona; Missouri; Oklahoma; Nebraska; Louisiana and Nevada, as noted by the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York should join these states in enacting practical limits that prevent the continued growth of career politicians, restore a citizen legislature and return power back to the people.
While it is true that the New York State Constitution does not make any specific reference to term limits, neither does it guarantee of lifetime public office. When clinging to political power and holding onto elective office become the top concerns for an official, then the spirit of public service is threatened and terms of public office should be limited. As Lord Acton said, power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Term limits would undue the temptation of political power to become corruptive.
TERM LIMITS NOT A PERFECT SOLUTION – BUT A PRACTICAL ONE
This is not to say that term limits are without critics or criticisms. Even the strongest supporters of government reform – I count myself among them – prefer that voters would simply and continuously “vote the bums out.” However, experience, reality and empirical evidence – incumbent state legislators having a 96 percent re-election rate serving as exhibit “A” – point to the fact that simply waiting for Albany’s political system to fix itself is not a good idea.
A BAD IDEA… WHOSE TIME HAS COME
Nationally syndicated talk radio and FOX News host Sean Hannity recently discussed the issue of term limits, ultimately concluding that term limits were “a bad idea… whose time has come.”
Hannity said that while he preferred a remedy that would not constrain the ability of voters to decide for themselves who can and cannot stand for office, the painful reality of incumbents maintaining a near stranglehold on power took precedence over such concerns. Even though he was discussing federal term limits, the case Hannity made – elected officials staying in power too long leads to bad policy, hurts democracy and causes more harm than good – is applicable to our State Legislature and Albany’s perpetual incumbency machine.
On this issue, I have done more than just talk the talk – I have walked the walk, as evidenced by my sponsorship of legislation (Assembly Bill A.4816) that would effectively term limit Legislative Leaders such as me to four consecutive two-year terms. This is a major departure from how Albany currently works, especially when you consider that some Legislative Leaders managed to stay in power for decades.
TERM LIMITS ARE JUST THE FIRST STEP TOWARD A STRONGER DEMOCRACY
Enacting term limits for Legislative Leaders is just the first step – New York needs to take the next steps by limiting the terms for the other 209 state legislators and statewide elected officials such as the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and Comptroller. Doing so in the form of a State Constitutional Amendment would give term limits permanence that will long outlive a simple statutory change easily reversed during a subsequent Legislative Session.
In addition to the substantive benefits, there are symbolic ones as well: adopting term limits via a State Constitutional Amendment would send a message that a new day has finally dawned for true democracy in the Empire State. Term limits would break the monopoly of Albany career politicians, restore public trust and confidence in our civic process, increase participation in elections and establish a true citizen legislature that delivers a more accountable, responsive and transparent State Legislature. Term limits are an idea whose time has come.
 “Examining Turnover in the New York State Legislature,” Citizens Union, February 2011, http://www.citizensunion.org/www/cu/site/hosting/Reports/CU_ExaminingTurnover_Update_Feb2011.pdf
 “Voter Access in New York,” Office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, December 6, 2010, http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2010/pr492-10_proposal.pdf
 “The Term Limited States,” National Conference of State Legislatures, June 2009, http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/legisdata/chart-of-term-limits-states.aspx
§2. ... The senators ... shall be chosen for two years ... The assembly members ... shall be chosen for two years.
§2. (c) In addition to powers granted in the statute of local governments or any other law, (i) every local government shall have power to adopt ... terms of office ..., except that cities and towns shall not have such power with respect to members of the legislative body of the county in their capacities as county officers.
§2. When the duration of any office is not provided by this constitution it may be declared by law, and if not so declared, such office shall be held during the pleasure of the authority making the appointment.
At present, 15 states have term limits for legislators including Maine; California; Colorado; Arkansas; Michigan; Florida; Ohio; South Dakota; Montana; Arizona; Missouri; Oklahoma; Nebraska; Louisiana and Nevada, as noted by the National Conference of State Legislature.