Hillsborough and Pinellas County residents just won a little more democracy. The Florida Supreme Court has given citizens in all charter counties the power to impose term limits on county officials. But before the term-limits train picks up too much speed, residents should reflect on how they have worked at the state level. Term limits have not transformed the Legislature into a more responsive and responsible body. They have shifted power from elected officials to lobbyists and catapulted unprepared lawmakers into leadership. By giving voters the ability to alter qualifications for local public officials, the high court has approved a power Hillsborough and Pinellas voters should have had all along. Now the responsible thing to do is to not exercise it.
Term limits was the reform idea of choice in the 1990s. Incumbency was thought to be too powerful a force in elections, leading to out-of-touch, career politicians. After voters approved eight-year term limits for the Legislature and Cabinet in 1992, voters in Pinellas County overwhelmingly passed "Eight is Enough" in 1996. They limited to eight consecutive years the terms of county commissioners and five constitutional officers: the sheriff, clerk of court, property appraiser, tax collector and elections supervisor. But the local limits never took effect. They were found unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2002.
In a 4-3 decision, the court said that changing disqualifications for constitutional officers could be accomplished only through a state constitutional revision or special legislative act. The decision was later applied to Pinellas County commissioners, because their term limits had been part of the same referendum question.
But even then the high court's dissenters had the stronger argument. Then-Justice Harry Lee Anstead said there was "no legal justification" for the majority's conclusion. He argued instead that citizens should be allowed to adopt term limits for local elected officials since there was no contrary state law and the state Constitution gave charter counties such as Hillsborough and Pinellas broad home rule authority. The fact that the high court, in a case decided this month, has now unanimously approved this view and "receded" from its 2002 ruling suggests that Anstead was right all along.
This reversal has led to arguments over whether the results of the 1996 Pinellas referendum can be resurrected. It's a confusion that may have to be clarified by the courts. But one thing is clear: After two decades of experience with term limits in the Florida Legislature, the experiment is a failed one. Lawmakers jockey for new political or appointed posts when their terms are up rather than leave public life. Neophyte lawmakers rise to leadership before they have the experience to know what they're doing. And without lawmakers with institutional knowledge on how the system works, they are easily manipulated by lobbyists and special interests that end up controlling the legislative agenda.
Despite the correctness of the Supreme Court's ruling, Floridians would be well served by the repeal of term limits, not their expansion. Hillsborough and Pinellas would be wise to steer clear.