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Term limits: Change, but good or bad?

The chief supporter of an eight-year limit on political terms and an ardent opponent agreed on one thing Friday: The proposed constitutional amendment will wreak fundamental change in Florida.

The question debated before the Capital Tiger Bay Club by Phil Handy, chairman of Citizens for Limited Political Terms, and former Senate President Phil Lewis was whether that change would be for the better.

Even Lewis, who served in the Senate for 10 years and was president from 1978-80, acknowledged that Amendment 9 likely would pass by an overwhelming margin Nov. 3. Public opinion polls indicate three-quarters of Florida voters support it.

"People have a right to be wrong. People may think they're getting better government, but it won't be," Lewis said. "There will be less people there to drive the system who understand the system."

The amendment, placed on the ballot when Handy's group collected more than 500,000 signatures from voters, would prevent all 160 legislators, members of the Cabinet, the lieutenant governor, the 23 members of Congress and both U.S. senators from appearing on the ballot for the same office after eight years.

Florida is one of 15 states with such measures on the Novemberballot, which Handy said comes close to a "national referendum."

"Democracy is based on people participating in the process, and those numbers are going down, down, down," Handy said. "In an open seat, more people run and more people vote."

Lewis contended the initiative would increase the power of lobbyists and staff while reducing the importance of seniority and experience. There won't be as many knowledgeable politicians to run things, he said.

"It takes awhile for them to learn the process. They won't do as good," Lewis said.

Florida may also lose clout in Congress, Lewis said, because other states have no term limits. Handy said the Legislature could then put another initiative on the ballot removing the federal offices from the limitation.

"Term limits is a response to an extraordinary crisis in confidence in government," Handy said. "Somebody's got to take some leadership."

Lewis said voters already have the power to limit terms and shouldn't give up their right to vote for a candidate.

"You ought to have the option to keep people in office," he said. "You also ought to be able to throw them out."