Professional politicians hang onto the false hope that there will be a change in public opinion and that they will somehow be rescued from term limits. The fundamental rule of self-government – that those who establish the conditions should return to the masses to live under the situation they create – seems beyond their comprehension.
Political careerists believe that they are the rare geniuses capable of protecting all of us from ourselves. Yet, their failure to take actions that would avert their perceived “disasters” suggests that they exaggerate. There are dozens of reforms they might impose, but they choose not to improve the representative process.
Colorado voters approved term limits for all elected officials in a series of elections in 1990, 1994, 1996, and 1998. On Nov. 5, district attorneys are attempting to eliminate constitutional term limits for themselves in favor of a lifetime job. This proposal would remove term limits before it takes effect – before it can even be evaluated. An exception should not be made for this political office, which has significant power to implement public policy affecting people’s lives.
Empirical studies indicate term limits result in much more competitive elections. In the past 20 years, 78 percent of the district attorneys running for re-election did not even have a challenger because of the overwhelming incumbency advantage.
Turnover at the district attorney level brings fresh ideas to law enforcement. Unlimited years of service do not necessarily provide the citizens with better prosecutors or a more responsive and sound prosecutorial policy.
There are other ways to further professional knowledge and expertise such as mentoring the next generation. Voters are sophisticated enough to fill the office with a qualified candidate.
The Colorado Legislature unanimously abolished a 1996 citizen-initiated constitutional amendment. The bill was disguised as an “obsolete provision” of the Constitution in the final week of the regular session. In that hectic week, sponsors introduce, and legislators vote on bills they don’t even read, let alone study.
Past voting records tell us that many legislators consistently back the will of their constituents by supporting term limits.
Not this time. One sponsor of that bill was unaware that a term limits amendment was included for extermination. A state senate leader apologized to us for his vote.
What better reason for term limits than the fact that legislators will not reform the system that produces this mess?
Instruct and inform
“Instruct and inform” was developed by initiative states early in the 20th Century. It encouraged state and federal legislators to vote in favor of U.S. Constitutional Amendment 17, the direct election of senators. In 1996 that method was used to attempt to promote a U.S. Term Limits Constitutional Amendment.
The first provision of the 1996 term limits amendment instructs state and congressional legislators to follow specific steps to promote an amendment to the federal constitution to implement congressional term limits. The second provision directs the state to inform voters by noting on the ballot which legislators failed to comply with the “instruct” provision.
Colorado’s “instruct and inform” amendment was ruled unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1998, but the Idaho Supreme Court upheld the “instruct” portion of a similar Idaho law. It would be strange for any court to rule it unconstitutional for the people to redress their grievances to their representatives by sending instructions that the people wish to have carried out. This should remain in the constitution. The will of the people is never obsolete.
“The people” get involved in their government when they believe the situation should be improved and when they believe their involvement will actually make a difference.
Term limits was never designed to cure all problems; in fact, designed as an impetus for further reform, it deliberately causes challenges. It was designed to limit the power of elitists and to help citizens make a difference. In short, the intent of term limits was to begin the process of reforming representative democracy.
Rather than trying to repeal term limits, politicians should move forward with reform! Voters should vote NO on A and D.
Terry Considine and Dennis Polhill are co-chairmen and David Ottke is the executive director of the Colorado Term Limits Coalition.
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