ANNAPOLIS – The term limits wave continues to gain momentum nationwide, but its crest will miss Maryland – at least this year.
The House Commerce and Government Matters Committee recently dashed the sole hope for term limits enthusiasts this session — a proposed constitutional amendment limiting state legislators to two four-year terms. Only four of the committee’s 22 members supported the measure.
Proponents say that term limits force necessary turnover during an era when incumbents dominate government.
Opponents argue that mandated limits restrict voters’choices and remove institutional knowledge from the government by shifting power to newcomers.
Del. Michael Burns, R-Anne Arundel, says he co-sponsored the failed constitutional amendment because he believes people genuinely want term limits.
“People are cynical, they do not trust the government,” he says.
And Burns can see why. The atmosphere in Annapolis is “like a cruise ship,” he says. “I’m a down-to-earth guy, but sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that I have to do laundry tonight.”
Serving in the Legislature “inadvertently detaches you from the people,” Burns adds. “Term limits are an insurance policy that guarantee the public that every few years there will be turnover.”
But there is new blood. This year, 80 fresh faces compose 43 percent of the Legislature. Among these freshmen are Burns and fellow term limits co-sponsor Del. James Rzepkowski, R-Anne Arundel.
“Many people argue, `We don’t need term limits — look at the turnover in the last election,'” Burns says. “I wish that was true always, but last November was a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Rzepkowski says he believes term limits would “reinvigorate” the General Assembly: “You need turnover of ideas so there isn’t stagnation.”
But most of his colleagues disagree.
Del. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, says she opposes term limits because she feels they are undemocratic.
“Each day I cast a vote, I am making decisions that might be so controversial I may not get elected if I choose to run in the next election,” Kagan says. “If my district doesn’t like the way I represent them, I trust they will communicate that when they vote.”
Del. John Wood, D-St. Mary’s, says term limits could harm the system of checks and balances.
“If you limit the terms of the officials, what happens to the bureaucrats?” he asks. “They stay here.”
Although the federal push for term limits has been dominated by the GOP and even included in the Republican Contract with America, some Maryland Republicans oppose mandated limits.
Del. Louise Snodgrass, R-Frederick, says, “I feel so strongly that it should be the people’s choice to say who stays and who goes.”
Del. Patricia Faulkner, R-Howard, also says she doesn’t believe term limits are necessary.
“There would be an advantage for me, as a member of the minority party, to support term limits, but I actually think the mechanism is in place,” Faulkner says. “Voters can vote people out of office. It’s the American way.”
The idea of legislative term limits is still fairly new. Oklahoma in 1990 became the first of 20 states to limit its lawmakers’ terms, according to U.S. Term Limits, a non-profit organization.
While lawmakers’ terms are not limited in Maryland, term limits do exist here. The governor is limited to two four-year terms, while Prince George’s, Howard and Anne Arundel counties limit officials’ terms.
Measures to limit General Assembly terms have failed during the past five consecutive sessions.
Christopher Deering, a political science professor at George Washington University, says term limits defy the intentions of the founding fathers.
“There is an assumption that more rapid turnover would make the government more responsive to public opinion,” Deering says. “The framers wanted a stable foundation that was not controlled strictly by public whims.”
Deering also says term limits might reinforce partisanship, as people who could no longer use incumbency as a cue resorted to straight-ticket voting.
Jack Fruchtman, a political science professor at Towson State University, says term limits might strip the General Assembly of institutional wisdom.
“It takes a while for any delegate or senator to become familiar with the process,” he says. “By the time they got their footing, they would not be eligible to serve.”
But Burns counters, “It doesn’t take 20 years to learn the ropes, it takes 20-hour work days.”
Will Burns take it upon himself to limit his own service if term limits never pass?
“I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not going to be here forever, but leaving wouldn’t further the cause. I sponsored the amendment this year to begin a dialogue, to start discussion on the issue as a matter of philosophy. “When the bill becomes law, that will be the last term I serve.” -30-