Indiana Voters Are Deciding Enough Is Enough
Indiana Writers Group column for May 10 and thereafter
By Andrea Neal
Lawmakers with long tenure in the Indiana General Assembly should make note of a refreshing trend. Voters are imposing term limits. It happened twice in the May 2 primary: to Senate President Bob Garton of Columbus, a 36-year veteran, and to Rep. Mary Kay Budak of LaPorte, a 26-year member of the Indiana House.
Two years ago, it happened to Larry Borst of Indianapolis, the Republican who served 38 years, a quarter century as Senate Finance Chairman. In 2002, Steve Johnson of Kokomo experienced voter rejection after 16 years in the Senate and four in the House.
Garton’s loss has been blamed on his lengthy incumbency, defense of lifetime health benefits and a strong pro-life turnout for opponent Greg Walker. Budak attributed her defeat to her support of Major Moves, Gov. Mitch Daniels’ controversial Toll Road lease plan.
That Garton and Budak lost to fellow Republicans suggests voter desire for change was a factor. Neither candidate was enmeshed in a scandal, as was Johnson, who admitted an affair with an intern. Both have been well liked by voters. “This wasn’t about the Toll Road; this was about time for change,” Tom Dermody said of his 71 percent win over Budak.
Both also were seen as old-timers too long at the public trough, a fact underscored by Garton’s refusal to entertain reform of legislative retirement and health-care plans that had attracted the ire of taxpayers. And both losses were described as upsets in media reports. Any time an incumbent loses, it’s an upset because of the name recognition that comes with the office.
Voter-imposed term limits are the exception, not the rule here. Many lawmakers serve decades before retiring or being retired, despite the clear intention of our framers that public service be temporary and rotated among the citizenry. In large measure, this explains why otherwise dedicated public servants such as Garton become attached to legislative perks, and are caught by surprise when voters get mad.
Voters will return to office incumbents who work hard, but draw the line when it appears officeholders are feathering their nests, a possibility Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he wrote in 1788, “I apprehend . . . that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of President and Senator will end in abuse.”
His thinking about our federal Constitution was exactly what motivated the framers of Indiana’s 1851 Constitution to set term limits for county offices such as court clerk, coroner and surveyor and state offices including secretary, treasurer and auditor. The latter served two-year terms with no person “eligible to either of said offices, more than four years in any period of six years.” (Now they can serve two consecutive four-year terms and no more than eight years out of 12.)
Fifteen states impose term limits for state legislators, ranging from six to 12 years for representatives to eight to 12 years for senators. In nine of those states, limits apply to consecutive terms, so lawmakers may run again after sitting out a stint.
Hoosier citizens have no way to get a term limit referendum on the ballot so it would be up to the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment. That’s unlikely to happen without a groundswell from voters.
A chief benefit of term limits is that they encourage participation of more people, including women, minorities and the young. “In most states, the absence of term limits severely limits the competition for legislative seats,” according to a 2003 Cato Institute research paper.
In Indiana, there is little competition in the general election and less in the primary. Although all 100 House seats are on the ballot in 2006, only 20 incumbents faced competition on May 2. Statewide, there were only 33 contested House primaries involving either party.
In 2004, the last general election, 57 of 125 House and Senate races were uncontested, meaning one of the major parties failed to field a candidate. That’s 46 percent, down from a 50 percent uncontested rate in 2002, but higher than the 38 percent national average. In states with legislative term limits, it’s a different story. In California, for example, only six of 100 legislative seats were uncontested in 2004.
Our founders left term limits out of the U.S. Constitution because they could not foresee that politics would become a career for so many. It has. The defeats of Garton and Budak were the voters’ way of saying: We do not want a legislature of lifers.
Andrea Neal is former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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