Friday, November 16, 2018

Romano: Terms limits are for voters who don’t trust themselves

Happy 25th anniversary, Florida.

Now, letís talk about a divorce.

Seriously, this arrangement is no longer working. To be perfectly honest, itís never worked at all.

Iím talking about Amendment 9, which Florida passed with great exuberance 25 years ago. If you donít recall, this was the amendment specifying eight-year term limits for the state House and Senate.

At the time, it seemed like the thing to do. There was a movement all across the nation to rid politics of the same old faces, and encourage civic-minded neighbors to run for office.

This led to a two-year span, from 1992-94, when term limits were enacted in 15 states. Looking back, it has the feel of a political fad. Since then, only three more states have signed up for term limits and six others have been reversed.

As for Florida?

The effect has pretty much been the opposite of the aim.

Turns out, the fresh faces were nothing but window dressing. The same old power structure is in charge and, in some ways, has grown more entrenched.

Let me explain:

The way the Legislature is set up, all of the power resides with the Senate president and the House speaker. They pick committee assignments and they largely control campaign funds. That means they choose what legislation will be heard, and even what candidates have a chance to win local elections.

In the best of times, individual senators and representatives have little chance of fighting against party leaders. With term limits, the chances are practically nil.

Cross the president or the speaker, and you will be ostracized. And with their terms in Tallahassee shortened by law, these legislators have little time to build status or political capital.

So we get puppets. Lots and lots of puppets.

A handful are chosen for leadership positions and the rest of them do what they are told. In exchange, their party supports their re-election bids and invites them to cocktail parties and photo ops.

The system has become so corrupted by term limits that we donít even pretend to reward legislators for jobs well done. As soon as freshmen arrive in Tallahassee for their first session, they decide who will be the House speaker six years down the road.

This is akin to looking at a bunch of pre-med students, and choosing one to perform your open heart surgery in 2024.

Under term limits, this type of silliness is pervasive. Nobody has time to develop any real expertise in committees, and so lobbyists become the de facto authors of policies and legislation.

And why do we allow this?

Because we donít trust ourselves to vote intelligently.

Seriously, thatís the reason. The whole concept behind term limits is that voters keep putting the same yahoos back in office. And thereís a lot of truth to that. Incumbents are almost infallible on the ballot.

So we passed an amendment to protect us from ourselves.

And we somehow made it worse.

Thatís why itís time to admit this whole concept was a huge mistake. Granted, it wonít be easy because term limits have a very grass-roots feel to them. The idea of eliminating career politicians sounds grand.

Except the reality is different.

All weíve done is exchange the movers and shakers for the witless and spineless.

Over the years, a handful of legislators have brought up the possibility of putting another constitutional amendment on the ballot to fix the term limit problem but the idea never goes very far.

That needs to change. And quickly.

If you donít think so, consider this tale:

Rep. Dan Raulerson of Plant City grew so disenchanted with the dictatorial leadership of House Speaker Richard Corcoran that he decided to resign his seat when he encountered some health problems.

A special election was held on Dec. 19 and was won by political newcomer Lawrence McClure, who got heavy financial support from Corcoran and his cronies.

Get it?

One of the lone veterans willing to vote his conscience was run out of the House, and replaced by a political newcomer who now owes his career to the speaker. Want to guess which way McClure will be voting in 2018?

So, yes, 25 years ago we exercised our constitutional right to create term limits in Florida.

But wouldnít it have been easier to just pay closer attention when filling out a ballot? When it comes to getting attentive legislators, accountability would work better than term limits.