Bipartisan proposal would lengthen Florida's legislative terms

TALLAHASSEE — Just weeks after winning the Nov. 2 election, dozens of Florida lawmakers filed to run for re-election in 2012, including several freshman legislators.

That's a problem, said state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. "The concern is, especially in the House, with a two-year term, you're basically always running," Kriseman said. "When people are always running, it means they're always fundraising. Is that the best system for our state?"

And with early voting increasingly popular, election cycles keep getting shorter.

Kriseman has filed a bill that would ask Florida voters to reconsider the two-year terms for House members and the four-year terms for senators.

He wants to change the House terms to four years and Senate terms to six, and extend state term limits from eight years to 12.

"I'm not really focusing so much on extending the term limit from eight to 12 years, that isn't my objective. It's to stop the continual campaigning that goes on," he said. "That's not what I think legislators' primary focus should be. It should be on legislation and good policy and moving the state forward."

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, now in his final term, has filed a companion bill.

"It doesn't affect me at all. It doesn't affect any sitting member. It would only affect new people," he said.

Bennett said he supported a 1992 citizen-initiated constitutional amendment that limited state lawmakers to a total of eight years in office. Floridians overwhelmingly backed the measure, which passed with 77 percent of the vote.

But Bennett now believes lawmakers need more than eight years to learn how government works and become effective.

"It takes years and years to try to learn the budget process," Bennett said. "Most people spend their first year trying to find a bathroom on the third floor."

If approved by the Legislature, voters would consider the constitutional amendment either in 2012 or during a special election. To pass, it would require support by at least 60 percent of voters.

"It's a high bar to jump over," Bennett acknowledged. "But we need to find out how the public really feels. They might say, 'Hey, look. We don't want any of you jugheads around.' "

His sense, though, is that voters will go for it.

"I think people are sick and tired of this raising money all the time," Bennett said. "They want us taking care of the people in Florida instead of always raising money."

Others aren't so sure.

"On a practical level, the learning curve and the awareness of the history of what's going on and mastering the process, it takes a while. I think 12 years would work better. But it's going to be a difficult sale to the people," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "They're used to getting a shot back at it every two years to make the choice if they want to retain the incumbent. I don't think the voters are ready to give up anything on that."

As for Kriseman's concerns about constant fundraising, Baxley said that would be better addressed by requiring more transparency in the process.

Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who was first elected in November and has already filed again for re-election in 2012, said she believes two-year terms encourage lawmakers to be responsive to voters. "People overwhelmingly voted to enact term limits because they want their elected officials to be accountable. I have no problem being held accountable. This is what they decided that they needed for their elected officials," she said. "Do we need to keep going back and asking the voters if they're sure?"

But Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said now may be the time to get a report card on how term limits are working. "We predicted that term limits would transfer more power to lobbyists and bureaucratic staff and that's come true," he said. "The voters voted it in. They should have the chance to decide if they want to change it."

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Democrat from Hollywood, Fla., said she'll listen to any debate that might occur on the issue. She agrees that they keep lawmakers accountable. But it bothers her that they leave lobbyists and bureaucrats with all the institutional knowledge about state government. "I honestly believe that there would be less control by the influence peddlers if the House members didn't have to run as often," Sobel said. "The people who support campaigns with big dollars are the special interests in Tallahassee."

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, called the discussion "thought-provoking."

"It's worth talking about and debating, but it would have to be a strong bipartisan effort to get it passed," he said. "In this environment, people tend to be very distrusting of public officials. So if someone is saying give us more time in office, the immediate response is to be skeptical."

Kriseman countered critics of the proposal by saying elected officials should always be accountable to their constituents, even if they're not in the middle of a campaign. He pointed out that voters don't seem to mind four-year terms for the governor, senators and Cabinet members, and said similar terms would work better for House members.

"I'd like to see the voters have an opportunity to weigh in," he said. "It's a good, common-sense way of addressing what's going on right now in the absence of any campaign finance reform.''

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Bipartisan proposal would lengthen Florida's legislative terms 01/17/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 7:29am]

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