Whether to limit Alabama lawmakers' terms a topic of Goat Hill debate
by Tim Lockette
Dec 09, 2012 | 5018 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Members of the Alabama House confer on an education bill during their session last March. (Associated Press photo by Dave Martin)
Members of the Alabama House confer on an education bill during their session last March. (Associated Press photo by Dave Martin)
MONTGOMERY — When Richard Laird was first elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, Jimmy Carter was president, George Wallace was governor, and House leaders tried to match every freshman legislator with an older colleague to show them the ropes.

Laird’s House mentor showed him where the bathrooms were. He showed Laird how to file a bill. And he taught him the unofficial code of honor.

“If you promised a fellow legislator you’d vote for their bill, you had to keep your word,” said Laird, D-Roanoke. “If you changed your mind, or if your constituents didn’t like the bill, you had to go to the person and ask to be released from your promise.”

Laird, 73, is one of the old hands now. He uses the story of his first-term mentor to explain why he’s not a fan of term limits for state legislators. Without the old lawmakers around, the argument goes, the Legislature would lose the expertise of the old pros.

But for fans of term limits, it’s just as easy to turn the parable around — as an example of an old-boy system, handed down from generation to generation, that shuts out constituents.

The issue is being debated in Montgomery now. Last week, the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission — the group tasked with rewriting Alabama’s 1901 Constitution — narrowly voted down an effort to place a three-term limit on state lawmakers. But that 7-6 vote didn’t kill the idea entirely. A bill already filed in the Senate could have legislators taking up the issue again soon.

A pyramid

The average lawmaker in Alabama has about 10 years in the Legislature. But as often happens, the average doesn’t give you the whole picture.

A seniority chart of lawmakers would look like a pyramid. At the top would be the well-known Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, first elected to the House back in the 1960s. On the next tier would be a few 1970s freshmen like Laird or Montgomery’s Democratic Rep. Alvin Holmes.

Many of the Legislature’s leaders — including Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn — were first elected in the 1990s, when Alabama was first emerging as a two-party state. And a heap of freshmen came to the Statehouse in 2010, when both chambers flipped to the GOP for the first time in 136 years.

Some think both houses would be healthier if that pyramid became a speed bump.

Rep. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, told the Constitutional Revision Commission on Monday that term limits are needed to “level the playing field for all districts.”

Taylor is a member of the commission, which is reviewing and rewriting the state Constitution piece by piece. Taylor wanted the commission to write a limit of three consecutive legislative terms into the document.

Long House and Senate tenures, he argued, concentrate power in the hands of a few veteran legislators. Those legislators wind up running committees, and tend to devote state resources to their districts. It’s not what’s best for the state, he said.

Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, would like to see a two-term limit. Ford is already past that limit — he was elected in 2000 — and he’s been hanging around the Statehouse since he was 6 years old. His father, the late Rep. Joe Ford, was in office for 26 years. Still, Ford would like to see future lawmakers limited to eight years.

“Term limits would keep special interests out of the process,” he said. He said lobbyists help lawmakers develop war chests for perpetual re-election, something that wouldn’t be such a problem in a term-limited Legislature.

Supporters of term limits say that if the question were put to the people, it would pass easily. But to get a popular vote, any constitutional amendment would have to get past a majority of the 140 Alabamians least likely to want it — the 105 members of the House and the 35 in the Senate.

‘What kind of chaos?’

“It doesn’t affect me, really, but I’m not for term limits,” said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville.

Dial, 75, is a master of the legislative maze. He’s also a Senate freshman. Voters booted him out in 2006 after two terms in the House and six in the Senate. Then they re-elected him 2010, making him again a first-term legislator. He said that if he runs for another term, it would probably be his last.

Does seniority give him power? Sure, Dial says. He claims that power has less to do with committee chairmanships and more to do with knowing the lay of the land.

And he doesn’t see that as a problem.

“I’m there to protect rural Alabama and its way of life,” he said. Jefferson County has seven senators, Dial said. If rural districts hang on to long-term incumbents, he said, it may be because they help keep the big cities from running the whole show.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said he’s open to the idea of term limits. He’ll have to be, if the issue is going to get anywhere: A 10-year veteran of the House, Wood is vice-chair of the House committee that governs amendments and elections.

“I’m not sure how I’d vote,” he said. “I’d have to research it first.”

Wood said it’s true that seniority leads to committee chairmanships, and committee chairs do get more funding for their districts.

But he’s concerned that term limits would leave both chambers without a lot of members with experience in government. And he’s not sure how that would play out in Alabama, where, unlike most states, both chambers are elected on the same four-year cycle.

“What if every seat turned over at one time?” he asked. “What kind of chaos would you have?”

More powerful governors

Richard Niemi has thought about that, and about a lot of other stuff related to term limits. A professor of political science at the University of Rochester in New York, he’s studied the effects of term limits in the 15 states that have them.

“What do you mean by a three-term limit?” Niemi asked a Star reporter. “Are you talking about three consecutive terms in either house, or three in each house?”

The bill pre-filed in the Senate would limit lawmakers to three consecutive terms in the House or three consecutive terms in the Senate.

“If you did both back-to-back, that’s 24 years,” Niemi said. “That’s a long time in office.”

Niemi said that in many states, term limits have made governors more powerful. With fewer experienced lawmakers, governors are more able to push their agendas, he said. Capitol staff also become more powerful, he said, because they have institutional wisdom that term-limited legislators lack.

For lobbyists, it’s a mixed bag.

“In term-limited houses, the lobbyists are often better-informed than the legislators,” he said. “On the other hand, lobbyists have to deal with a new set of people every few years.”

Niemi said that in some states, term limits were pitched as an effort to diversify legislatures. With more frequent non-incumbent elections, the theory went, women and minorities would get a foot in the door.

That hasn’t worked out, Niemi said. There’s little significant movement in the numbers of minority or female legislators in most term-limited states, he said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, women make up about 14 percent of the Alabama Legislature — a lopsided number, but par for the course in state assemblies.

Twenty-three percent of lawmakers are black — just a few percentage points below the black population of the state as a whole and one of the highest percentages in the country.

A good fight

“The best argument for term limits is that voters just need to see someone new every once in a while,” said Lori Owens, a professor of political science at Jacksonville State University.

Owens said the decision on term limits is largely a matter of personal taste. If you like a good electoral fight, term limits may appeal to you.

“It puts the burden on citizens to be engaged,” she said. Without a known incumbent always in the mix, voters would have to read up and learn new names and ideas.

Still, Owens said, people may find they like the old way — electing and re-electing the same legislators until they do something that ticks voters off.

“Most people don’t like to be bothered with the day-to-day aspects of politics,” she said. “What drives politics is voter anger. People are more likely to get involved if they’re voting against a politician, not for a politician.”

There are times, Owens noted, when voters do term limits the old-fashioned way — by voting incumbents out. That happened just two years ago, when the Republican sweep installed dozens of freshman lawmakers.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly half of state lawmakers nationwide have less than two years in office. Some of that number is due to strict term limit laws in some states. But some is due to electoral sweeps of the sort that occurred in Alabama, said Niemi, the Rochester professor.

“The turnover rate really isn’t as bad as most people think,” he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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