Scott Mooneyham: A retreat on term limits?

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 23, 2011

RALEIGH ó Shhhh. Donít tell anyone. Some state legislators arenít thrilled with the idea of limiting the terms of legislative leaders.
No, Iím not talking about the ones like former House Speaker and current House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, who show open disdain for the idea.
Some of the honorables who have voted for limits arenít fans either.
Legislators came to Raleigh last week vowing that they would approve a proposed constitutional amendment to limit the terms of the House speaker and Senate president pro tem. When they left town after a three-day, reconvened session, low and behold, they hadnít acted on the measure.
The official version of events is that the House and Senate canít agree on just how long the House speaker and Senate leader should serve.
The House had passed a proposed amendment back in April that would limit the tenure of top legislative jobs to four years.
The Senate, during the reconvened session, responded with its own version, passing a proposed amendment that included a limit of four consecutive terms, or eight years. Senate leader Phil Berger said the sentiment in the Senate was to not make legislative leadersí terms more restrictive than those of the governor.
This idea of limiting legislative leadersí terms first gained momentum when former House Speaker Jim Black was indicted and then sent to prison after leading that chamber for eight years. Blackís tenure as speaker showed that long years in the top legislative jobs concentrate power and can isolate the leadership.
The big money that began flowing into legislative campaigns during the 1990s only increased the power. Allowing unlimited donations to move through the political parties caused legislative leaders to become the primary conduit for all the campaign cash.
Former Senate leader Marc Basnight, who served in the Senateís top spot for twice as long as Black, may have avoided the pitfalls of his fellow Democrat.
The pork that Basnight directed toward his beloved Outer Banks still created critics who complained about his lengthy tenure.
That recent history has Berger and current House Speaker Thom Tillis under pressure to do something. Both say they believe a proposed constitutional amendment on leadership terms will be on the ballot in November of next year, that a compromise will be reached.
Perhaps. But Berger further muddied the water when he suggested that one solution would be limiting the governor to a single, four-year term.
And wouldnít it be interesting if, come May, legislators once again canít quite decide whether four, six or eight years is best? Or, maybe they canít quite find the votes to try to return to the 1970s, when North Carolina limited its governor to a single term.
But they tried. They really did. And there is always next year.

Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association.