Ken Hare In Depth: Term limits for Legislature not a dead issue

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When some members of a constitutional reform commission tried to include a limit on the number of consecutive terms Alabama legislators can serve as part of a revision proposal, their effort fell short. But the notion is not dead. In fact, there are two paths still open for changing Alabama's constitution to include term limits for legislators.

One path would involve the Legislature passing enabling legislation to put a freestanding constitutional amendment on the ballot that would limit the number of consecutive terms legislators could serve.

The other path would involve the Legislature amending the recommendations of the Constitution Revision Commission to include term limits as part of the overall constitutional reform plan. Either path would require the approval of the state's voters.

But there remains a major problem with getting term limits for legislators adopted. Both paths for approving term limits would go directly through the 140 Alabama legislators who would be affected by those limits.

Still, state senators Tripp Pittman and Bryan Taylor believe it can be done.

Pittman, R-Daphne,  has introduced a bill calling for a constitutional amendment that would limit state legislators to three consecutive terms in the Alabama House and three consecutive terms in the Alabama Senate.

In the past, Pittman has sponsored legislation to limit lawmakers to two consecutive terms.       But those bills have gone nowhere. So this year he has changed his approach, not only increasing the number of terms a legislator could serve but also not counting time already served by current incumbents as part of the limit.

That means, of course, that the real impact of the proposal would not be felt until the legislative elections in 2026. And it means that a legislator who could get elected in both a House and Senate district conceivably could serve for 24 consecutive years.

If the Legislature would allow term limits to be voted on by the people of Alabama, it probably would pass overwhelmingly.  But getting enabling legislation for even those rather lax limits through the House and Senate could be difficult. In fact, in the past Pittman hasn't  been able to get legislative leaders to bring his legislation up for a vote.

Taylor, R-Prattville, led an effort to get the state Constitution Revision Commission to include term limits as part of its overall recommendations on constitutional changes to the Legislature. However, his effort failed on a 7-6 vote.

But Taylor told me that he plans to try again to include term limits as part of the constitutional revision process when the Legislature considers the revision commission's recommendations.

The National Conference of State Legislatures lists 15 states that currently have term limits for legislators. Initially 21 states adopted them, but the courts have since ruled them unconstitutional in four states and in two states the legislatures subsequently repealed the limits.

"This was a major agenda item for many states 20 years ago, but it had sort of run its course," said Tom Vocino, executive director for the Center for Leadership and Public Policy at Alabama State University. "Now all of sudden it's come up again in Alabama."

Vocino said he is not a fan of term limits. He said he believes that having too many inexperienced legislators works in favor of lobbyists and gives an advantage to the executive branch of government.

"I believe elections are what is needed for limiting terms," he said. "When voters are tired of elected officials they can vote someone else into office."

However, an incumbent has many built-in advantages over challengers -- such things as the ability to raise funds while in office, especially from special interests; the bully pulpit offered by the post; and increased name recognition. Those make it difficult in most election years for newcomers to oust incumbents.

The 2010 election was an exception. Anger over scandals involving legislators and lawmakers voting themselves a whopping pay increase spurred a major turnover in the Legislature, giving Republicans control of the Legislature for the first time in decades. But that kind of turnover is unlikely to become the norm.

Pittman said he believes that it is important to get new blood in the Legislature that would bring a "healthy skepticism" to the legislative process and a "new way of looking at how things are done."

Taylor also said he believes it is "good to refresh the membership of the Legislature every now and again" to bring new ideas to the process. But he said he also is concerned that the current seniority system concentrates power among a few long-term lawmakers.

"Term limits would help to level the playing field and to ensure that all parts of the state are on equal footing," Taylor said.

The debate over the effect of term limits is a legitimate one. However, people on both sides of the debate seem to agree that if the people of Alabama were allowed to vote on the issue, it would pass overwhelmingly. In the end, that may be the best argument for limiting the number of terms legislators could serve.


Ken Hare is a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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