Term limits tend to come naturally in Raleigh


By Paul O’Connor - Capitol Press Association



Visit your old neighborhood and you might find most things look the same.

The trees may be taller, there may be a new porch or a repainted house, but there is enough physical similarity to evoke old memories.

It is when you see strangers mowing your old lawn or getting the mail from Mrs. Flanagan’s mailbox that you feel like a stranger.

I spent a day feeling like a stranger in my old work neighborhood, the Legislative Building on Friday.

Things were familiar, for sure. The water fountains have not moved, the elevators still run slow and the pressroom still is filthy. But, much like in my old neighborhood, the people have changed, even from just two-and-a-half years ago: New people in the clerks’ offices, in the security stations, in Legislative Services and, most importantly, all new names on the legislators’ office doors.

“We don’t need term limits in Raleigh,” one longtime staffer chuckled. Most legislators lose or quit after a few terms.

That staffer had counted informally and only found a handful of Republican legislators who pre-dated the GOP’s ascension to control in 2011 and fewer Democrats who were around when their party reigned.

Now, term limits have not been on the state political agenda for years, but you hear whispered hopes that they will become an issue again.

In 1994, national Republicans put congressional term limits in their campaign “Contract with America,” and North Carolina Republicans followed suit in their “Contract with North Carolina.”

Neither Congress nor the General Assembly followed through, however. Once in office, Republicans found term limits less appealing.

The allure of term limits is the same today as it was in 1994. With steady legislative turnover in either Washington or Raleigh, we would get new leaders, new ideas and less political dysfunction emanating from longstanding political and personal enmities.

One big drawback, however, is the loss of institutional memory. New legislators often do not know why things are the way they are, so they fix things that are not broken.

Take the 1989 transportation package that Republican Gov. Jim Martin and legislative Democrats devised.

To raise money, sales tax revenues above $140 million on auto-related products would go to the Highway Fund. But as a compromise to protect education, the first $140 million collected would go to the General Fund, where it long had gone.

A few sessions later, after much legislative turnover, Republicans started to decry this “$140 million raid on the Highway Fund” when, in fact, it was highways that had raided education. Eventually, the legislature shifted all of that sales tax revenue to the Highway Fund, violating the 1989 revenue compromise.

Term limits also would increase staff influence.

When people are new on a job, they tend to seek advice from veterans. With term limits, most legislators would have much less seniority than much of the permanent staff.

There is another reason North Carolina does not need term limits: redistricting. At the latest, we will have our next remapping in 2021 and, given the uneven growth between our cities and rural areas, a lot of districts will change drastically.

So, no later than 2022, we will have a whole new crew of legislators looking for the water fountains and wondering why some sales taxes go to the Highway Fund.

Paul T. O’Connor writes columns for the Capitol Press Association. He has covered state government for 38 years.

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By Paul O’Connor

Capitol Press Association

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