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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

The time for term limits has come to state government

New York's financial regulators advised health insurers statewide

New York's financial regulators advised health insurers statewide on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014, to cover transgender treatment deemed to be medically necessary. The state capitol building in Albany is pictured here. Credit: Bloomberg News / Ron Antonelli

I voted against term limits in 1993 and 1996 when the issue was on the ballot in New York City. My reasoning was simple and unoriginal: Like other New Yorkers who unsuccessfully opposed the measure, I argued that voters have a right every two, four or six years to elect or re-elect their representatives. We already have term limits, I said.

Now, I'm convinced I was wrong, and that we need term limits for New York State office holders, too. The reason? Men are not angels, as the Federalist Papers famously observed. Even the best of us can become compromised or corrupted by power over time. And nowhere does that seem truer than in New York, where state government has become an unqualified national embarrassment.

A second reason is the firm understanding that voters don't truly get a choice in who appears on the ballots. New York's moneyed and political interests have mastered the art of incumbency protection. New York's state legislative districts -- 150 Assembly seats and 63 State Senate seats -- have become virtually impregnable political fiefdoms. Many established legislators go unchallenged, with only token opposition on Election Day. Indeed, much of the legislative turnover in New York, which is minimal, comes from criminal investigations or death.

As a Republican, I admit, term limits in Albany are arguably an awful idea. Republicans have managed to keep control of the state's upper house -- the State Senate -- through herculean efforts, unending acts of circus juggling and clever redistricting in a state with a 2-1 Democratic enrollment advantage. In doing so, there has been at least a semblance of balance in Albany. Erase that Republican majority through term limits, and it may never come back. That's no small point.

But at the same time, it's probably worth the risk at this point. New York continues its inexorable slide to the bottom among states in high taxes, cost of government, regulations, out-migration, utility costs, and, perhaps most distressingly, corruption, even with that legislative balance. Maybe it's time to give power back to voters, and to trust their wisdom going forward. Besides, clearing the legislative table would be profoundly satisfying at an emotional level.

Contrary to popular mythology, term limits can be attained in New York. It's complicated -- of course it is! -- but it can be done. New York voters are given an opportunity every 20 years to bypass the power of the state legislature by voting for a Constitutional Convention. That right was given to voters in 1846 as an anti-corruption measure, and Albany hasn't found a way to take that right away yet.

In November 2017, New Yorkers will be asked to vote on whether to hold a convention. If voters approve that measure, they will be asked the following November to approve a slate of 204 delegates -- three per State Senate district and 15 at-large delegates -- to the convention, which would propose specific constitutional changes. One of them could be term limits. In November 2019, voters would finally have the chance to vote up or down on proposed constitutional amendments. The next time they'd have that opportunity would be 2039.

Legislators, unions, business associations and all others with undue influence over the state today would fight tooth-and-nail every step of the way to stop any term-limit movement dead in its tracks. They have invested millions of dollars and decades of lobbying efforts into electing and buttressing legislators who protect their interests.

Can anyone think of a better reason to get aboard a term-limit movement? Lawmakers were supposed to look out for the average citizen first. Clearly, that has not happened.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.