Most new Legislatures in Raleigh see a few proposed amendments to the State Constitution, and this one so far is no different.
Often, the proposed changes go nowhere. Maybe they are proposed by the party that's not in power, so they do not have the votes to get on the ballot. Maybe they are too contentious, so even if they are proposed by members of the party in control they do not go forward out of concern for riling up the opposition for the next election cycle.
Sometimes proposed changes garner lots of media attention and mobilize large segments of society.
“Amendment 1” in 2012 prohibiting gay marriage in the state was one such proposal. It mobilized social conservatives and progressives alike before passing with over 61% of the vote. Two years later it gained a second round of attention when it was effectively overturned by the courts in 2014.
Other times, constitutional changes that have a major impact on society hardly get any attention at all.
Last year’s change to allow criminal defendants permission to waive their right to a jury trial was all but ignored by most. According to a report by the UNC School of Government, North Carolina was the only state to not allow such a waiver and even though the amendment proposed a “fundamental change in how criminal trials may be conducted in this state” it received little attention from the media and “advocacy groups”.
And then there are the proposed changes seemingly designed to help those in elected office more than anybody else. Unfortunately, two of the proposed amendments this legislative session fall into this last category.
Two weeks ago, a pair of bills were filed proposing to extend the terms of Legislators from the current two year terms to four year terms.
House Bill 180, sponsored mainly by House Democrats, proposes 4-year terms for Representatives and Senators with a two term limit for the leadership positions of House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore.
Senate Bill 271 sponsored by four Republicans – including Senator Jeff Tarte of Cornelius – goes a step further by proposing 4-year “staggered” terms. Under this scheme, only half the House and Senate would be elected every two years.
S271 also seeks to implement term limits for all members of the General Assembly. Legislators would be allowed up to four consecutive terms “in a legislative chamber”. It is unclear whether the term limits provision would mean a maximum of 16 consecutive years in Raleigh or potentially up to 32 years if an elected official maxed out 4 terms in each chamber.
Multiple requests to Senator Tarte’s office have gone unanswered to clarify this point and include his comments on the bill for this story.
Locally, debating this type of change may sound eerily familiar. Back in 2011/2012, the Town of Davidson was considering a similar change to four year staggered terms for its elected officials.
If these bills go forward and make their way onto the ballot this November, you can be sure you’ll hear some of the same reasons why it is a good idea. Supporters will say it “provides stability” by reducing turnover in a given election cycle. They will tell you longer terms allow elected officials to spend more time on long-term projects rather than campaigning. They will say it will take some of the money out of politics. They will make it sound like a good idea.
But here are some of the other impacts.
• Four year terms for all legislators provides less accountability and a lot of time for individual members to make mischief between one election and having to face voters for reelection.
• In an environment where we already have very few competitive districts due to gerrymandering, cutting the number of districts in half on the ballot in a given election cycle will further concentrate money into an even smaller number of competitive races.
• Four year staggered terms makes it much more difficult for the party not in power to take over an elected body – even if those in power deserve to be ousted. It is not good for small-d democracy.
In 2012 after hearing from voters, the Town of Davidson abandoned plans to make this type of change and lengthen terms for elected officials. Here’s hoping our legislature and particularly those sponsoring these bills see the light and do the same here.
If legislators really want to give the public a choice on something voters may actually want, they could put a straight up term limits amendment on the ballot. However, if the price of term limits is longer terms with reduced voter impact, then the price is too high.