Commentary

Term Limits: Still Alive and Kickin’

By Patrick Basham
May 22, 2004

Reports of the death of term limits are greatly exaggerated. Last week, San Antonio voters provided a vivid demonstration that, contrary to recent national media coverage, term limits are very much alive.

Seventeen thousand local politicians in 2,900 cities, counties, and towns throughout 40 states are now subject to term limits. In 1991, San Antonio voters limited city council members to two two-year terms in office during their lifetime, the strictest term limit rule of any major metropolitan area in the nation.

The voters sought a more competitive political system and wanted to return accountability to a local political system dominated by career politicians and lobbyists. Mostly, they sought an end to the huge spending and double-digit annual tax rate increases that had become the political class’ specialty.

But term limits’ opponents never rested in their attempt to roll back the political clock. In 1996, a federal court dismissed a legal challenge and upheld San Antonio’s lifetime term limits on city council members. The conundrum for the political establishment was that the term limitation could only be changed through the ballot box.

Three months ago, San Antonio council members voted unanimously to weaken term limits through a referendum. Proposition 1 sought to expand the term limit to three consecutive three-year terms and lift the lifetime ban, thereby enabling council members to run again after sitting out a single term. Mayor Ed Garza admitted that this year’s campaign to relax the limit was simply the first step along the path to completely repealing term limits.

During the spring campaign, San Antonio’s most powerful interest groups campaigned hard against term limits. Special interest lobbyists, business groups, labor unions, major city contractors, and the city’s daily newspaper linked arms in an anti-term limits coalition. A veteran political consultant choreographed the slick campaign that sought to “reeducate” voters about term limits’ alleged limitations.

Only one group, the Homeowner Taxpayer Association, actively opposed the term limits revision. The largely volunteer campaign possessed little money but did possess a passionate desire not to hand the keys to the public purse back to those proven to be poor fiscal custodians.

The anti-term limits coalition spent $325,000. The coalition’s average contribution of $4,577 was a thousand dollars greater than the entire amount spent by the pro-term limit campaign. A 100-to-1 spending ratio advantage ensured that the debate was strongly skewed in favor of Proposition 1’s passage.

The anti-term limits campaign enjoyed all of the advantages that money can bring to a campaign: political consultants; TV and radio commercials; direct mail literature; billboards; and professional phone banks and door-to-door canvassing. The pro-term limits campaign was limited to a Web site and some hand-delivered literature.

Yet, on May 15, voters overwhelmingly backed the current term limit. How could this happen? Councilman Chip Haass provides an explanation. He attributes the support for term limits to “blue collar people” unable “to understand fully how things work at City Hall.” Is there a better example of the elitist condescension that permeates the professional political class?

More logically, Richard Gambitta, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio (USTA), said the result “shows voters view the current checks on the City Council as positive.” Contrary to the political establishment’s forecast, local government has been headed in the right direction. According to research conducted by USTA’s Arturo Vega and John Bretting, overall levels of political efficacy have increased under term limits.

Most residents view their term limited council as a vast improvement upon its careerist predecessor. For example, under term limits there hasn’t been a tax rate increase for 11 years. Contrast this state of affairs with the fiscal abyss the city hovered over in the 1980s when the careerists, led by Mayor Henry Cisneros, ran the show.

Term limits reward real-world experience over back-room experience. They have reformed local government in San Antonio and around the nation by replacing professional politicians with citizen legislators who participate in local government out of a sense of civic duty. The detractors are wrong. Local term limits are changing our country’s political culture and paving the way to real reform.