Texas conservatives were pushing for term limits 20 years ago, in an effort easy to dismiss as an attempt to flush Democrats out of the Legislature, the congressional delegation and even out of some executive offices.
That effort fell flat. Now the idea is back, again pushed by Republicans, but this time with a Republican House, a Republican Senate, a Republican congressional delegation and 29 statewide offices for which the Republicans have held the keys since the mid-1990s.
It seems like an odd time for a revolution.
The effort is not aimed at anyone in particular, according to George Seay, a Dallas businessman, co-chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas and grandson of the late Gov. Bill Clements. He’s not asking lawmakers to give themselves the boot, exactly. He’s asking them to let voters decide whether future lawmakers should get the boot, automatically. He’s touting a poll done by his new group, Texans for Term Limits, that says almost everybody supports the idea. (Of course, if the poll said otherwise, we probably would not be hearing about it.)
“One of the arguments that has some merit to it is that you’ll lose some institutional ability,” Seay said. “The flip of that is that you may lose some good people, but you may lose some who need to go.”
State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, has proposed a limit of two consecutive terms for statewide nonjudicial offices. Candidates could run again after sitting out for a term, and legislators would be exempt.
State Rep. Lyle Larson’s separate proposal would limit state legislators to all or part of six regular legislative sessions, or 12 years under normal circumstances. The San Antonio Republican would not count time served before 2015 — a way of telling the fellow legislators whose votes he needs, “Hey, friends, this isn’t about you.”
Both sponsors of the proposed constitutional amendments served in local governments that have term limits.
The governor and other statewides (not including judges and U.S. senators) would get the same 12-year expiration dates and the same deal on when the political clocks start counting down: 2015.
That’s a way of telling the state’s longest-serving governor and its longest-serving attorney general that they should take no offense, nothing to see here, it’s all good.
If legislators put a proposal on the November ballot, however, the timing could be, well, political. Candidates will start filing for state offices in December, and the primaries are set for March. This sets up a situation where voters might cast ballots for a term limits bill in November and are still talking about it when they start casting their primary votes.
George P. Bush, Jeb's son, said recently that it was time for a new generation of Texas officeholders. One of his talking points directs the listener to the average age and tenure of the current occupants of the state’s executive offices. Rick Perry has been in public office since 1984. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was previously the land commissioner. Greg Abbott served as a district judge and a Texas Supreme Court justice before he was attorney general. Jerry Patterson, Susan Combs and Todd Staples were state legislators before they took over, respectively, at the General Land Office, the Comptroller of Public Accounts and the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Whether you would argue for experience or fresh faces, that should be evidence enough for a good start to the conversation.
As this percolates, you’ll hear some standard arguments.
- Term limits subvert voters’ right to keep people in office as long as they want, and the huge freshman class in the Texas House is proof that voters are willing to dump incumbents.
- Incumbency gives politicians a grip on office that can be broken only by felony, illness, birdbrained words or votes, and term limits are needed to balance that staying power.
- Term limits empower staffers and lobbyists who stay as long as they want, and they send officeholders home when they’ve got the experience to be good at their jobs.
- Twelve years is long enough to get things done or to make way for someone who has not fallen native to the ways of government.
The current effort might turn on those points, but it has this in common with the push in the early 1990s: It started with conservatives itching for a little more turnover in the state’s top offices.