Tucked into the debate on a bill to amend the state constitution concerning the use of absentee ballots in elections, was a discussion on an amendment dealing with a very different subject: term limits for Connecticut politicians.
The amendment, introduced by Senate Republican leaders, would limit state senators and state representatives to five consecutive two-year terms. It would also restrict top statewide officials such as governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general to two consecutive four-year terms.
Let it be said that this Republican amendment, along with several other GOP initiatives, was defeated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
However, the amendment did trigger a fascinating debate on the pros and cons of term limits for lawmakers, something that is non-existent in Connecticut state government at the present time.
Sen. Len Suzio (R-Meriden) supported the term limits measure, explaining that it “recognizes that power can be a very seductive thing and can accrue in office.” He said instituting term limits “attempts to impede the corrupting influence of long terms in office.”
Another GOP lawmaker, Sen. Jason Welch (R-Bristol) claimed that whenever he campaigns door-to-door, constituents tell him they want term limits for state elected officials because “people become disenchanted with some of the things they see coming out of Hartford and feel helpless to stop it.”
A Democratic legislator, Sen. Beth Bye (D-West Hartford) said the anti-politician sentiment Welch experienced may have more to do with the current tone of politics rather than any fervor for term limits. “We spend a lot of time talking down (about each other)—this is a rough game and we make people think poorly of politicians,” Bye explained.
Nevertheless, Welch said he believes term limits would have a positive effect in limiting “the power of incumbency” and “level the playing field” by bringing new people into the legislature and statewide office and “restoring some of the faith government has lost.” Sen. Rob Kane (R-Watertown) agreed, saying “it is good to get new people in with new ideas, beliefs, and energy.”
The case against term limits was made by the Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven) who claimed that states that have tried term limits for lawmakers have realized “unintended consequences” that have diminished the authority of the legislature.
“There has tended to be a shift in power and influence to the executive branch, to lobbyists, and to the permanent legislative staff that comes from experience and knowledge,” Looney maintained. In other words, these elements in government retain their experience and savvy, while term limits have created a legislature full of newcomers. “Legislators are less experienced and grounded in dealing with issues, and are at a disadvantage,” said Looney.
The Majority Leader said legislatures everywhere must fight for influence and the spotlight, because governors have the bully pulpit to make their case, and their single voice is more powerful than the multi-voiced House and Senate. Looney contends that creating term limits for lawmakers only strengthens that dynamic.
“There is an inherent disadvantage for the legislative branch that is exacerbated by term limits,” he said. “You are undermining the opportunity for balance that an experienced legislature would have.”
Looney summed up his argument by saying Connecticut already has term limits for lawmakers, “they’re called elections—and they occur every two years.” He charged that term limit advocates are really saying: “We will not allow the people to select their representative of choice. Instead we will arbitrarily cut off someone’s service regardless of whether that person is doing a good job.”
However, Suzio says when the reelection rate for incumbents is approaching 95%, term limits are needed to counter the advantage incumbents build up over time in terms of familiarity with the voters and the process. He said voters “want to feel their representative are responsive to them” and term limits would “allow more people to get in (to serve in the legislature).”
Bye responded by stating: “If there is a high reelection rate (for incumbents) maybe it is because we actually are responsive to our constituents.” Bye concluded: “I’m going to trust the voters of my district to vote for me to represent them and if they don’t—I’ll be done—and that will be my term limit.”
The term limits amendment was rejected by the State Senate on a vote of 21 to 12—along party lines.
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