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Utah senators vote to repeal term-limits law

Utah senators Tuesday, arguing that the ballot box is the best form of term limits, repealed an 8-year-old term-limits law, which is set to start weeding out longtime legislators over the next few years.

"Some are concerned about going against the voice of the people," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, "but the voice of the people is the ballot box. The only public opinion poll that matters is the first Tuesday in November."

Bramble's comments were in direct reference to public opinion polls, including those conducted for the Deseret News, showing overwhelming public support for term limits.

Lawmakers first passed a term-limit law in 1994 at the same time there was a citizen initiative, led by political maverick Merrill Cook, to place the matter on the November ballot. The lawmakers' vote pre-empted the initiative. Cook could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

But time has cooled the term-limits movement, and senators repealed the law with very little debate by a 17-12 vote. SB240 now goes to the House, where a similar repeal has passed in two earlier legislative sessions, only to be stalled by a reluctant Senate.

With the Senate on board, the bill's passage in the House in an almost-certainty.

Gov. Mike Leavitt likely will not veto the measure. His spokeswoman, Natalie Gochnour, said earlier this session that Leavitt has "no strong feelings" about the Legislature limiting its own terms.

Earlier this session, some legislators wondered if Leavitt's 12-year term limit should also be repealed. And Gochnour wondered why legislative term limits should be repealed but not the governor's. But SB240 also repeals gubernatorial term limits, as well as other statewide elected officers, such as the attorney general.

Although 12 senators voted against the repeal, none spoke against the bill. Rather, lawmakers paraded the Constitution and fundamental principles of democracy as a reason why there should be no term limits.

"The right of citizens to vote for whoever they choose" is a fundamental right, Bramble said.

And there is nothing in the Constitution that says someone's right to run for office should be limited, he added.

"We have a great process already in place," agreed Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, praising Bramble's "courage" for running the bill.

A number of legislators say term limits are not needed in Utah because elections already provide substantial turnover. And while it is true that there is turnover in the 29-member Senate and 75-member House, most of that turnover comes through retirements and deaths.

For example, in the 2002 elections, our of 62 House members who sought re-election 58 won for an incumbent re-election rate of 93.5 percent.

And Utahns in general do not want term limits repealed. The Deseret News/KSL-TV, in a survey conducted earlier this year by Dan Jones & Associates, found that 76 percent of Utahns don't want the current 12-year term limit law repealed. Only 18 percent favor repeal of term limits, Jones found, and 6 percent didn't know.

Utah is the only state where the Legislature adopted it's own term limits. In the other 16 states with term limits, the limits passed by citizen initiative.

Bart Grant, head of Utah Term Limits, says if lawmakers repeal term limits and adopt a tougher citizen initiative petition law, which has already passed the Senate, the result will be that current incumbent legislators will just get re-elected until they retire or die.

"Taken hand in hand the two actions will mean legislators will be elected time and again," Bart said in earlier committee testimony.


E-mail: spang@desnews.com;bbjr@desnews.com