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Talk of Term Limits is Back, With Tea Party Help

Limiting the terms of lawmakers and other officeholders was a sexy idea 20 years ago, when Republicans were trying to unseat Democrats. Now it's back.

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The talk of term limits is back, in a convergence of the “goo-goos” and the revolutionaries.

The goo-goos — the good government types — think the turnover would produce a stream of fresh policy ideas. Stepping gingerly around the imminent 12th anniversary of Rick Perry’s ascension to governor, they are promoting various constitutional term limits on statewide and legislative officials in Texas, who currently are allowed to serve as long as voters can stand them.

The revolutionaries — that’s the Tea Party folk — arrived at limits with a different but also traditional reason: They want to replace the current bums with fresh ones, preferably from their own flock.

Last week, an outfit called the Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee proposed limits that would periodically dislodge incumbents — perhaps including a number of the people now in office. That would simultaneously clear seats for new candidates from, say, the Tea Party.

Two of the legislators pushing limits have previously fallen victim to them at the local level, and came away from that experience thinking this is a good idea. Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, was a city council member and then mayor there, and left each of those jobs when his expiration date came up. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, was on the city council for two two-year terms, and that was that. He says four years was too short, but he still supports the idea.

“It makes for a great exit strategy, I’ll tell you that,” Larson said. “Run for something else, or go home.”

Eltife is a little giddy about Tea Party support for his proposed constitutional amendment, which would bar statewide nonjudicial officeholders from running for a third consecutive term. They could serve two terms, sit out, and come back. Most of the time, that would function as an eight-year limit. In cases like the governor’s, who took office when George W. Bush became president, it would have prevented him from running in 2010, and his tenure would have lasted just over 10 years.

Larson’s version adds the legislative branch and would bar lawmakers for serving in more than six biennial legislative sessions. Statewide officials would also be barred from running for re-election after 12 years. He’s also filing a bill that would require most officeholders to resign from their current posts to run for new ones.

Both lawmakers said they aren’t aiming at anyone in particular. “Right now we have this political process that in large part focuses on getting re-elected,” Larson said. “With term limits, you might get some focus on getting things done.”

This wheel has turned before: It was in vogue with Texas Republicans who targeted Democrats 20 years ago. Incumbents are still the targets, but now those incumbents are Republicans.

The Tea Party now, like the Republicans then, has its success stories. But they don’t have control, and this attrition business takes so long.

When the Democrats were in charge of everything in state government, able to leap tall Republicans in a single bound and seemingly — through redistricting and incumbency — impervious to electoral attack, Republicans pushed the idea.

Rob Mosbacher Jr., a Republican, promoted the idea after losing a 1990 lieutenant governor’s race to Bob Bullock, a Democrat, heading a statewide term limits effort that fizzled in a Legislature controlled by Democrats. One argument was that limits would decrease the power of officeholders and increase the power of groups whose terms aren’t limited: government staffers, lobbyists and vendors. They would become a permanent class, the argument goes, with the temporary elected class sprinkled in for variety.

“I’ve never bought into that argument,” Eltife said. “This would be plenty of time for someone to get things done.”

He also dismisses the common argument that voters ought to be able to keep electing anybody they want to keep electing. “In Texas, with unlimited campaign contributions, incumbency is difficult to overcome,” he said.

Besides, it would be up to those same voters to decide whether to establish term limits, Eltife said. “My gut tells me this would pass overwhelmingly if we put it on the ballot.”

After the city council, Larson served as a Bexar County commissioner. His time there wasn’t limited, but based on that experience, he said, his decision to leave after a dozen years argues for limits.

“I was bored,” he said. “Twelve years is the right period of time.”

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