O'Reilly: Want term limits? Axe elected official pensions

The New York State Capitol in Albany.

The New York State Capitol in Albany. (Credit: Getty Images)

William F. B. O'Reilly

Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28, William F. B. O'Reilly

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State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long submitted thousands of petition signatures this week to state legislative leaders calling for term limits on elected officials.

Under the proposal, statewide elected officials would be able to serve two four-year terms and state legislators would be allowed four two-year terms. Eight in 10 New Yorkers think this is a capital idea, the party says, but in Albany the state capital the reception was reportedly cooler.

That surely came as no surprise to a political party that has always understood that people in government, as elsewhere, intrinsically serve their own interests -- that's a core basis for conservative skepticism about government -- but the party's call for term limits is almost certainly worth the exercise if only to get elected officials on record on the issue.

Enacting term limits in New York would take a herculean effort. A constitutional amendment would have to pass both houses of the state legislature with an absolute majority in two consecutive years, be signed by the governor and put on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment. The toughest roadblock would be the State Assembly, the body to which conservative ideas are shipped to die.

The chance to hold a state constitutional convention -- on the ballot the next in 2017, as it is every 20 years -- presents a better opportunity for term limits. But the last time the constitution was changed in any material way was in 1938, as Joe Louis and Max Schmeling were preparing to duel at Yankee Stadium and Adolf Hitler was marching into Austria.

There's more than one way to skin a cat, though. If the goal is to dismantle political fiefdoms, it might make sense to take away some of the trappings that incentivize their perpetuation. Chief among these is the pension benefit elected officials receive, which encourages them to run year after year. The more time in the system, the greater the benefit.

Holding elective office was never supposed to be a career choice in this country, but it has become one because elected leaders have made it possible for themselves. Can anyone imagine a Thomas Jefferson or John Adams thinking, "just six more years in the system" and it's off to Florida.

Government service, itself, is a legitimate career path and retirement plans of an affordable sort are appropriate for state and legislative workers. But should elected officials, who create policies that can hurt or benefit their financial patrons, really be encouraged to "put in their 30?" Consciously or unconsciously, they will almost always enact policies that ensure their self preservation in office until retirement.

It would be wrong to ask legislators serving today to give up that for which they've worked. A deal is a deal, and promised pension benefits need to be there when they retire. But for future elected officials? It may be worth thinking about.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a columnist and a Republican political consultant.