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Term limits crash

| Thursday, May 3, 2012, 6:42 p.m.

HARRISBURG

In Allegheny County and Southwestern Pennsylvania, the numbers are off the charts: 81 percent favor term limits, according to a recent statewide poll.

It's ironic that these numbers surfaced last week in a Quinnipiac University poll, just a day after a term limits proposal hit a brick wall in the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform. A state Senate panel recently shot down limits.

Yet statewide voters, by a 75 percent to 19 percent ratio, support limiting state House members and senators to eight years in office.

But to hear many of the lawmakers on the reform panel -- and especially the commission's expert witness from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) -- you'd think term limits are a truly terrible idea.

"Simply put, term limits are detrimental to the legislative process and are undemocratic," said Rep. Sean Ramaley, D-Economy. "They take away the right of the people to elect their own leader, by instituting an arbitrary cap on the years of service an elected official can provide."

Ramaley, who testified before the reform panel last week, claimed term limits put "more authority in the hands of the executive branch, special interests and staff." Ramaley previously worked as a staff aide in Ohio, which has term limits for lawmakers.

Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, suggests the numbers are driven by residual "bad feeling" from the 2005 pay raise for lawmakers, judges and top executive-branch officials. It was done in the middle of the night without any debate or advance warning of the specifics. It was repealed in the face of a voter rebellion. But, surprise, surprise, it was later reinstated by judges for judges.

Maybe the pay-jacking inched the numbers up a bit. Historically, however, there has been strong public support for term limits.

Asked about the sharp contrast between the poll and the seeming lack of enthusiasm on the reform panel, Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery County, the co-chairman, said the large numbers for term limits are an extension of the fact that many voters dislike the Legislature but like their own legislator.

They may want term limits in general but don't necessarily want them for their guy or gal. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

The fact is people want them.

Then there's the study by the NCSL, a respected group by and large, that found everything wrong that could be found wrong with term limits. One lawmaker told me privately the group appeared to have an "institutional bias" against term limits.

Incredibly, the NCSL study found that term limits don't bring a diverse new group to general assemblies and that they don't curb political careerism.

Right.

Fifteen states have them. Pennsylvania won't anytime soon become the sixteenth.

The voters want them and the most the reform commission can do is express interest in term limits for committee chairmen. That's a measure already defeated in the House. It allows members to say they were for "term limits" even though that proposal isn't general in nature. Even that probably won't happen.

In other words, it is a sleight of hand.

It's not final, of course. The reform commission won't vote on term limits until June 11.

So much for the reform movement born in the aftermath of the pay revolt.

What you want doesn't appear to matter. Self-protection remains the name of the game.

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