On Wednesday, March 20, 2013, Kent Fiscal Watch hosted a public discussion on the issue of term limits for elected town representatives. The featured speaker is former County Legislator, Vincent Tamagna, who successfully advocated for term limits at the county level.
As a member of Kent Fiscal Watch I originally endorsed term limits and agreed with the reasoning by fellow member Mr. Dave Ehnebuske. In his post, Mr. Ehnebuske stated that term limits may aid in curbing political corruption; limit the influence of special groups; and promote more balanced elections.
Admittedly, these are worthy goals, but do they withstand scrutiny?
There are currently 15 states with term limit laws for their state legislators. The majority of the term limit laws went into effect during the early 2000’s. Of the 15 states with term limit laws, 9 limit the number of consecutive terms for state legislators; and 6 states limit the total number of years an individual may serve on the state legislature. For a list of states with term limit laws click here.
To determine if term limits reduce political corruption a comparison of the number of political corruption cases brought over the past 30 years works as a good control group as compared to a selection of randomly picked states without term limits. This information is provided by the Department of Justice (DOJ), who provides Congress with an annual report on the number of official misconduct cases the DOJ has brought under the public integrity provisions of the federal Ethics in Government Act of 1978; the report includes the cumulative total of convictions for each state for the past 20 years.
According to the theory espoused by proponents for term limit laws the number of corruption cases should decline in the control group states as compared to the number of political corruption cases for the same period in randomly selected states.
A review of the DOJ report demonstrates that the number of convictions for states with consecutive term limits has increased in each of the last two decades, whereas states with lifetime term limits the number of convictions has decreased over the past 10 years. However, in the randomly selected states without term limits the number of official misconduct convictions increased over the past years but are relatively unchanged over the past 20 years. To review the reports for 2011 click here; for 2001 click here; for 1991 click here.
Moreover, California and Maine have the distinction of being the first states to enact term limit laws; in 1996 California’s lifetime and Maine’s consecutive limits went into effect. A review of the 30 year period for both states shows that in the 15 years prior to enacting term limit laws CA had 1167 official misconduct convictions compared to 1143 convictions in the post term limit period; ME had 49 official misconduct convictions during the pre-term limit period, and 53 during the post period.
Based on the foregoing term limits appear to have a minimal effect on the level of public corruption in states with lifetime term limits, but has no effect on states with consecutive term limit laws.
As to the goals of limiting the influence of special interests; given the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and their subsequent decisions against election laws in Arizona and Montana it is unlikely that the influence and money of special interests will disappear anytime soon.
Moreover, the NYS legislature has pending legislation (A04980), which provides eligible candidates access to designated public funds. Although, the aforementioned legislation does not pertain to term limits, the stated goals of increased public participation, expanding the field of candidates, and limiting the influence of special interests and corporate money are similar to the goals espoused by term limit advocates.
On March 16, 2013 advocates for publicly financed elections held a public teleconference, which featured guest speaker Governor Cuomo and included presentations from the presidents of the CWA, NAACP, and the Sierra Club.
During the presentation segment of the teleconference, sponsors claimed that public election financing laws would have a major impact on the influence of corporate money in the electoral process.
However, during the Q & A segment, a listener asked how public financing would limit corporate money; in response, a representative from a sponsoring organization stated that “keeping money out of elections was like trying to stop water from flowing downhill.”
Further, again unrelated to term limits, in 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study to ascertain if public finance laws in Maine and Arizona achieved the stated objectives for these laws. One of the stated objectives for both AZ and ME’s public financing laws was to reduce the influence of special interests and corporate money on the electoral process; the GAO could not determine if public finance election laws limited the influence of special interests.
This same report also studied if public finance laws had an impact on the number of uncontested elections. During the period studied (1996-2008) the number of contested elections increased from 60% to 75% in Arizona and from 86% to 91% in Maine.
As part of their methodology, the GAO selected comparison states to determine if AZ and ME demonstrated statistically significant improvements for the stated objectives of public finance laws relative to the selected comparison states. The GAO concluded that during the study period, the number of contested elections in the comparison states increased by 12% and 5% respectively; therefore the GAO could not determine if public financing laws were responsible for the increase in competitive elections.
However, since all of the comparison states for AZ and 2 of the 3 comparison states for ME have term limit laws, one can easily draw an inference that term limits help open elections to new faces.
While the foregoing information does not indicate a major impact on the electoral process, the fact that the number of corruption cases declined, albeit slightly, in those states with lifetime limits and the number of competitive elections increased adds some credence to the idea of enacting term limit laws.
However, the decision on whether to adopt term limit laws ultimately belongs to the voting public and if the towns residents endorse term limit laws for the Town of Kent they must voice their opinion to their elected town board members.
 Communications Workers of America
 South Dakota, Montana, Colorado
 South Dakota, Montana, Connecticut (no term limits)