If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone propose term limits as the solution for every political problem that faces us, I could have retired long ago to that cabin in the North Georgia mountains.
The argument for term limits is that they prevent politicians from becoming entrenched in office for so long that they act corruptly and enrich themselves at the taxpayers’ expense. After observing the activities in the Georgia General Assembly over the years, I have to admit that’s a compelling argument.
Because they enforce a regular turnover of the people serving in elected office, it is said that term limits serve the useful purpose of bringing new blood and new ideas into political bodies.
In the real world, term limits have not been quite the magical cure people thought they would be. California enacted term limits two decades ago and wound up with a dysfunctional legislature that could do little more than argue and bicker as the state slid towards bankruptcy with a budget deficit of more than $20 billion.
In a state like Georgia, you could argue that term limits are really not necessary. Over the past decade, in fact, the voters have done a very effective job of clearing out the General Assembly and bringing new people into office.
If you look at the list of those who were serving in the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives back in 2000, you’ll be amazed to see the names of so many lawmakers who are no longer there. During the 10 years since that session, the membership of both chambers has turned over by more than 75 percent.
Of the 56 people who served in the Georgia Senate during the 2000 legislative session, 44 of them have left or are leaving because of retirement, electoral defeat, or resignation to run for another office.
Over in the House, only 43 of the 180 members who were serving in 2000 have stayed continuously in office and will still be House members next January.
This turnover can also be seen in the leadership that runs the House and Senate. Over the past 10 years, we have seen two generations of leadership replaced in both chambers.
The Democrats who ran things in 2000 were swept out of leadership roles when Republicans gained majority control of the Senate in 2003 and the House in 2005. House Speaker Tom Murphy, Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell, Senate President Pro Tem Terrell Starr, Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker — most of them have passed away or are in prison.
That first wave of Republican leaders has also been replaced or is on the way out.
When the GOP took over the Senate in 2003, Eric Johnson was the president pro tem, Tom Price was the majority leader, Don Balfour was the caucus chairman, Mitch Seabaugh was the majority whip, and Bill Stephens and Dan Lee were the governor’s floor leaders. Johnson, Price, Stephens and Lee are no longer in the Senate, Balfour has long since been replaced as caucus chairman, and Seabaugh quit as majority whip during this year’s session.
The House leaders who took over in 2005 when Republicans gained control of the lower chamber included Glenn Richardson as speaker, Mark Burkhalter as speaker pro tem, Jerry Keen as majority leader, Barry Fleming as majority whip, and Earl Ehrhart as the rules committee chairman.
Most of that original House leadership team has disintegrated over the past six months. Richardson was forced to resign as speaker because of a scandal involving a lobbyist. Burkhalter briefly replaced Richardson as speaker before he also stepped down and decided to retire from the legislature.
Ehrhart was bounced from the rules committee chairmanship by the new speaker, David Ralston. Fleming left the House to run unsuccessfully for congress. Keen hung on for one more session as majority leader but is also leaving the General Assembly.
That is a lot of change for 10 years and Georgia did it without a term limits requirement. That’s why I would argue we don’t need to implement term limits here. If politicians won’t leave office voluntarily, we’ve got voters who are willing move them out.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.