If you think you’ve unwittingly gone through a time warp and returned to the mid-90s, that’s understandable, but wake up, Rip Van Winkle, the issue is suddenly relevant again.
However, before you answer with your heart, consider this: Only 10 of the 104 people currently serving in the Utah Legislature have been there 12 years or more (four in the Senate and six in the House), and while the governor will have served 11 years by next fall, he has voluntarily decided not to run for re-election.
The proposed limit would be 12 consecutive years for lawmakers — three four-year terms for senators and six two-year terms for House members — and eight consecutive years for the governor and all other executive branch offices.
The word “consecutive” is important here, also. The initiative would allow politicians to sit out a term, then run again. In other words, career politicians would have to take a sabbatical. That’s a compromise, party leaders say, between those who believe limits that are too short hurt government and those who don’t want any limits at all. Also, the limits wouldn’t apply to anyone already in office on Nov. 2, 2020.
Frankly, this initiative may be a solution in search of a problem, but it’s a popular one. And as anyone who has been around politics a while will tell you, a real problem isn’t necessarily if the solution is popular enough.
I’ve known party chairman Richard Davis and former party congressional candidate Jim Bennett for many years. Both are politically smart and have a mature understanding of what it might take to become a viable alternative in Utah’s Republican-dominated landscape.
Term limits is just one part of a larger party agenda that includes imposing campaign finance limits, open primary elections, an independent electoral commission and ranked-choice voting, which already is being piloted in some Utah cities. But it is one Davis and Bennett (son of former Sen. Bob Bennett) believe has a good chance of passing.
If only it can get on the ballot, that is; and that’s a big “if.”
State lawmakers have made that process hard. The party already has held the requisite number of hearings statewide. Now it must collect signatures equal to 8% of the number of active voters as of Jan. 1 after the last general election, and these must be spread out over 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts.
Most successful efforts rely on paid signature gatherers to get the job done. The United Utah Party doesn’t have the funds for that. They hope to collect enough donations soon, but they only have until mid-February to complete the process.
Earlier, I mentioned the mid-90s. That’s because Utah had a similar petition circulating in 1994. When it became clear the thing might pass, state lawmakers pre-empted everything by passing a 12-year term limit law. Then a future Legislature repealed it in 2003, just as it was about to throw out its first incumbents.
That’s the sort of thing that raises the collective level of cynicism about elected officials — just as the Legislature’s recent decision to rewrite two successful initiatives, and the possibility it might do the same to a third in coming months.
Maybe a more popular idea for an initiative would be one that reforms the state’s initiative process.
That said, I admit to not being a fan of initiatives, a form of direct democracy that skirts the leveling process of amendments, legislative hearings and possible gubernatorial vetoes.
I’m also not a big fan of term limits, which limit the public’s right to choose. At least one expert, Lynda Powell of the University of Rochester, has concluded they haven’t increased voter participation or curbed career politicians in the states that have them.
The United Utah Party’s version would cause little harm, given how much turnover the state already experiences. If it ever made it to the ballot, it would be hard to defeat.