Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Term limits for legislative leaders?

In Raleigh, House members are preparing to elect their first new leader since 1999, when Speaker Jim Black won the first of his four terms in the speaker’s chair. (Of course, Republican Richard Morgan shared the speakership with Black in the 2003 session, but Black clearly was first among equals.)
House Democrats will have 68 seats in 2007 to the Reublicans’ 52 and, presumably, will put together a majority of votes to elect a new speaker. Already there’s talk that the speakership should be limited to two terms before making way for a new leader.
But the Senate, with 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans, is on its way to electing Democrat Marc Basnight of Dare County to a record eighth term as Senate president pro tempore. That would give him an unbroken stream of 16 years as the top dog in the Senate.
Is there any chance the House would voluntarily limit itself to two terms for the speaker while the Senate sees no benefit in limiting its leadership? Well, sure – about the same chance that UNC Asheville had against UNC Chapel Hill in men’s basketball the other day. They still had to play it out to see if Carolina really would win by 30 or so.
It’s worth remembering that for most of the General Assembly’s history, it changed leaders fairly regularly. The House picked a new speaker every two years until Gov. Jim Hunt persuaded the legislature, and voters, to approve a constitutional amendment in 1977 allowing governors and lieutenant governors to run for and serve a second, successive term in office. Lawmakers feared the concentration of power – and then decided to join in the fun.
The House immediately responded by giving Speaker Carl Stewart a second term in 1979 and Rep. Liston Ramsey for successive terms as speaker from 1981-89. Rep. Joe Mavretic, D-Edgecombe, had it one session, then Dan Blue, D-Wake, had it two terms. Republican Harold Brubaker held the speakership two terms, 1995-1999, when Black took the post.
The Senate made Sen. Craig Lawing, a Mecklenburg Democrat, its president pro tem in 1979 and kept him for three terms. He was followed by Sen. Monk Harrington, D-Bertie, for two terms and Sen. Henson Barnes, D-Wayne, for another two before Basnight got the job in 1993 and kept it ever since.
Should the House adopt term limits on how long a speaker can serve?
Should the Senate adopt limits on how long a president pro tem can hold the job?
Let me know what you think.

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