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Coming to terms with term limits in Pennsylvania’s legislature | John Baer

There’s a new plan for term limits in Harrisburg that’s so accommodating to lawmakers that it just might work.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives at the State Capitol in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives at the State Capitol in Harrisburg.Read moreBRADLEY C. BOWER / File Photograph

Don’t shake your head and mutter “no way, no how, not here, not ever.” Consider this. Pennsylvania’s legislature is changing. There’s a new and different term-limits proposal. Together, that presents opportunity.

Term limits are among many reforms needed to make Pennsylvania’s governance, politics, and democracy better.

They’re easy to understand. Popular. We have them for presidents, governors, mayors. We should have them for lawmakers, at state and federal levels.

For now, let’s focus on Harrisburg.

And before you note that change never even visits Harrisburg, before you argue our lawmakers — historically greedy, rigid, reform-averse — would never vote to limit their time on the public dime, remember: Different legislature, different plan.

Lawmakers are younger, more diverse, less entrenched than ever before.

Of the 203 House members, more than half are in office six years or less: 113 of them, counting two recent special elections. And 48 are in their first term.

Why is this important?

Many ran on reforms. Most haven’t yet been sucked into the stay-for-life, protect-incumbency culture long dominant in America’s largest “full-time” legislature, which last year met for 47 voting days in the Senate, 43 in the House.

Plus, a term-limits plan offered last week by two freshman central Pennsylvania Republicans at a Capitol news conference is so forgiving it just might work.

It limits service to 12 consecutive years. Six House terms, three Senate terms.

Most important, it grandfathers current members, allowing them 12 more years after enactment.

Purists will say, hey, that’s not term limits, that’s a mini-career. But it’s better than what we have, which is pols hanging on for 25, 30, 40-plus years.

And its prime movers, Rep. Mike Jones (R., York) and Rep. Andrew Lewis (R, Dauphin), are no snowflakes.

Jones is the retired president of a York engineering firm. Lewis worked Army counterintelligence in South Korea, holds two master’s degrees, and helps run a family construction business.

“If ever there was a time we could get this done, it’s now,” Lewis tells me, noting the legislature’s changing makeup. “A lot of these people ran on term limits.”

Jones says the measure is crafted to pass.

“It does reasonable things,” he said, noting a provision allowing someone who served 12 years to sit out a term then run again. “Voters can bring the old dog back.”

He added, “I’d love it if it didn’t grandfather so much time, but we’ve got to be realistic, we’ve got to get the process started.”

The measure has Democratic cosponsorship, including Philly Rep. Jared Solomon, who knows something about long incumbency. Solomon narrowly lost to former Philly Rep. Mark Cohen in 2014, then beat Cohen in 2016. Cohen, known for collecting extraordinary expenses for decades, no receipts required, was in the House 42 years. He’s now a Philly Common Pleas judge.

Don’t even think about the size of his pension.

At last week’s news conference, Solomon said lawmakers who stay too long can end up “coasting along instead of charging ahead.”

(Among the longest serving are Philly Democrats: Rep. James Roebuck, in his 34th year; Sen. Vincent Hughes, 32nd year; Sen. Tony Williams, 30th year. Hughes and Williams previously served in the House.)

Oh, but won’t term limits allow lobbyists and staff to run the legislature and cause the loss of institutional knowledge?

Who do you think runs it now? And the knowledge in this institution — rooted in self-interest, perk protection and job security — ought to be lost.

One could argue that recent turnover is term limits imposed by voters. But who knows if the pattern continues? And the Jones/Lewis bill requires amending the state Constitution, which must be approved by voters.

Says Jones, “This is to let voters decide.”

Little question voters want term limits, in Washington and in Harrisburg.

A McLaughlin & Associates poll last February showed 82 percent support for congressional limits. A Franklin and Marshall College Poll last June showed 70 percent support for limits in our legislature.

Long incumbencies in a state such as ours with no recall provision, no initiative and referendum, no limits on campaign financing, regressive voting laws, and no term limits discourage political competition, stagnates democracy.

Jones notes that voters need to get energized. And he’s right.

So, go to the website Look under “Find My Legislator.” Contact him or her again and again. Urge support for term limits. It’s a start.