News: CJ Exclusives

House members give term limits amendment another shot

Measure would let legislators serve 16 years before hitting cap; previous efforts have not prevailed

State Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, is under no illusion a constitutional amendment to impose legislative term limits will be an easy sell, even though the earliest anyone would be barred from running for re-election is 2035.

After all, in 2013 U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis — the then-popular Republican House speaker — couldn’t persuade the General Assembly to approve a bipartisan constitutional amendment to limit the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to two two-year terms.

Nonetheless, Riddell, and fellow Reps. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham; John Faircloth, R-Guilford; and House Speaker Pro Tempore Sarah Stevens, R-Wilkes; primary sponsors of House Bill 413, think it’s time to push a measure on which Jones has done the heavy lifting.

The bill, introduced Tuesday and referred to the Rules Committee, would impose 16-year term limits on House and Senate members. All 16 years wouldn’t have to be served in one chamber but would rather be a cumulative total of service in both chambers.

Nick Tomboulides is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based national advocacy organization U.S. Term Limits, which has helped 15 states to pass legislative term limits

The 16-year cap underwhelms him.

“In our view a 16-year term limit is really an ineffectual term limit. We would call it politician friendly,” Tomboulides said. “It’s not going to have the same effect of curtailing incumbency and seniority as a six- or eight-year term limit, which is usually the standard.”

Of the 15 states with term limits, only Arkansas has a 16-year maximum, he said.

Because H.B. 413 is a constitutional amendment it must receive three-fifths majority votes in both chambers, and pass in a ballot referendum in the November 2018 general election. It would grandfather in all sitting lawmakers.

“The clock starts ticking in 2019, so even though someone might have eight years, or 10 years, or more, they start with zero in 2019,” Riddell said. That means it would take until 2035 to accumulate 16 years of legislative service.

“Many citizens approve of term limits for federal and state legislators, and we would like for North Carolina to be exemplary in our approach to term limits,” Jones said. H.B. 413 gives voters an opportunity to help determine self-governance through a ballot referendum, he said.

Jones said there was a reason the lawmakers chose 16 years.

“We believe this provides a balance of retaining a good measure of legislative experience in the body, while prohibiting a lifelong legislative career for an individual,” Jones said.

“We would also very much like to see Congress adopt such a model.”

Riddell said the intent of the legislation would prevent lawmakers from becoming what he called homesteaders. He laid out what he thinks is a better plan for a citizen legislature.

“You come down for a few terms if you’re fortunate enough to get re-elected, make your difference, and then step aside, and let someone else come in,” Riddell said. “Having a fresh source of elected officials, new ideas, and a different approach, I think, is just good for the legislature.”

Two other term-limit constitutional amendments were already introduced in the House.

House Bill 193 would make all legislative terms four years, and limit representation to three terms, or 12 years total. House Bill 182 would limit the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore to four two-year terms in those leadership posts.

Breaking down term limits  

According to Tomboulides, 36 governors have term limits of either four or eight years, and the average tenure in any state legislature is fewer than 16 years.

In North Carolina, only 13 of 120 current House members (10.8 percent) have 16 years or more of service [Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, 38.5; Julia Howard, R-Davie, 30; Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, 24; Verla Insko, D-Orange, 22; John Blust, R-Guilford, 20; Mitchell Setzer R-Catawba, 20; Larry Bell, D-Sampson, 18; Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, 18; Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, 18; Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, 16; Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, 16; David Lewis, R-Harnett, 16; Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, 16.]

Five of 50 senators (10 percent) have 16 years or more of legislative service [Dan Blue, D-Wake, 34; Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, 18; Andrew Brock, R-Davie, 16; Louis Pate, R-Wayne, 16; Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, 16].