Nine years ago, a then-new Gov. Pataki proposed establishing term limits for statewide-elected officials. Apoplectic opponents, who were ultimately successful in blocking the proposal, responded by charging that regular turnover of lawmakers would diminish institutional knowledge and political experience.
Proponents believed term limits would reinvigorate Albany, break up the political class and inject new ideas into the political mainstream. Furthermore, the faster turnover would weaken the relationship between careerist politicians and special-interest lobbyists.
Pataki’s proposal was not a novel one: California and Oklahoma had adopted term limits for their state lawmakers five years earlier, and several other states have subsequently followed suit. The 14-year record those states have produced shows that term-limited legislatures perform the people’s business more efficiently than do nonlimited legislatures.
A recent report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice compares different legislative practices across all 50 states. In one analysis, the authors studied legislative enactment rates. Michigan enacted 69% of introduced bills, Ohio 52% and California 41% - all in term-limited legislatures. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey had enactment rates ranging from 2.7% to 8.5%. They are nonlimited legislatures.
The Brennan Center report concludes that, overall, New York State’s nonlimited legislative process is the most dysfunctional in the nation. According to the report, Albany systematically excludes rank-and-file lawmakers and the public from the process. Evan Davis, former counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo, observes, “Most New Yorkers are represented by people with no say. They vote on bills they have had no opportunity to read, let alone study.”
Prior to term limits, California’s state legislature was referred to as a political geriatric ward. Now, California has gone so far as to pass state budgets on time. One would have to go back decades to find legislative sessions that produced as much as recent term-limited legislatures. In many instances, the loss of institutional memory, legislative knowledge and political experience has fostered a more energetic and more effective deliberative body.
Perhaps it’s time Pataki and the State of New York revisit his idea.