Three-fourths of Utahns want to keep the current 12-year legislative term-limit law, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.
But legislators may just repeal term limits this Legislature anyway.
Monday, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, introduced a term-limits bill. While only in title form now, Bramble says he prefers an outright repeal of the current law. However, he said he may be persuaded to change his bill to only call for a referendum on the current law.
Introduction in the Senate is a key difference to this year's attempt to get rid of term limits. Twice before the House has passed a term-limit repeal, only to see it fail in the Senate. Now, enough repeal votes may be in the Senate.
A Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted in early January for the newspaper and TV station found that 76 percent of Utahns "strongly" or "somewhat" favor keeping the current law.
Only 18 percent of Utahns oppose the current term-limit law, Jones found. Six percent didn't know. Over the years, Jones has found term limits always popular in Utah.
Bramble himself won't feel the pinch of term limits for another 10 years. So why then is the first-term lawmaker set on eliminating term limits altogether?
"I look around the Senate and see 20 of 29 senators with four years or less tenure," Bramble said, "and I realize we are going to lose a great deal of institutional memory if we lose people like (Democratic senators) Mike Dmitrich and Ed Mayne."
Dmitrich has been in the Legislature since 1968. Ironically, he wouldn't be forced from the Senate in 2006 when term limits kick in. That's because he spent most of his time in the House; he could be elected to one more four-year term to the Senate in 2004 under the current term-limit law.
In fact, while many senators are relatively new to that body, 14 of the 29 senators used to be in the House, and with their combined House and Senate tenure many of them have been on Capitol Hill more than a decade.
"There needs to be a balance between new senators and those who have institutional memory when we are dealing with long-term issues," Bramble added.
"I would hope they wouldn't do this," said Bart Grant, head of Utah Term Limits, the group that in 1994 pushed a citizens initiative petition on to the ballot. "They should be patient. At least let's wait until (term limits) go into effect in 2006 and we see what happens."
Combined with a bill this session that would require that 10 percent of registered voter signatures be gathered in all 29 Senate districts to get a citizen initiative on the ballot, legislators' actions this year "would kill" any future attempt to have term limits in Utah, said Grant. "This is a cynical, dishonest move" by legislators — to repeal term limits and also greatly restrict the initiative process, he added.
Taken "hand-in-hand, the two would mean legislators would just get elected again and again and again," Grant said.
Under current term-limit law, any legislator who had been in office 12 years come 2006 could not have his name on the ballot for that same office. But he could run for some other state office, or leave office for one term before running for the same office again. In 1994 the Legislature didn't wait to see if Grant's popular term limit initiative — also pushed by former GOP Congressman Merrill Cook — passed. In the general session nine months before the citizen vote, legislators adopted a 12-year term limit, but exempted current officeholders. Accordingly, no legislator will be forced from office until 2006.
GOP legislative leaders openly admitted in 1994 they pushed lawmakers to adopt their own term limit law to pre-empt the upcoming citizen initiative vote in November. At the time, insiders gave several reasons for that:
The term limit bill under consideration, at 12 years, was longer than the 8-year-limit in the citizen initiative petition.
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was asking voters that year to re-elect him, giving him 24 years in office. And Republican bosses worried citizens might think twice about voting for Hatch if they also had a ballot question on 8-year-term limits.
Legislators didn't want citizens to speak on the issue, feeling that would commit the Legislature to term limits. Lawmakers frequently amend or repeal laws passed by previous legislatures; repealing a citizen initiative has rarely been done in Utah.
The 1994 ballot vote failed, in part because Cook lumped into the 8-year-term limit vote an odd run-off election provision that could have affected his own 2nd Congressional District independent campaign that year.
Grant says at 12 years, Utah's term limits are some of the most generous among the states that have adopted them. And the Utah Legislature is the only body to vote voluntarily to limit its members' terms. All other term limits have come via citizen actions at the ballot box.
Bramble's SB240 has not yet been drafted, but he said it could include one of two approaches: An outright repeal of term limits by the Legislature or a non-binding public vote on the matter.
"Personally, I am in favor of repealing term limits. It is the right thing to do," he said, pointing out that Idaho has already repealed its term limits law. Currently, 17 states, including Utah, have some type of term limits.
It's true some legislatures have repealed citizen-induced term limits, said Grant. But in a couple of states where the Legislature repealed its term limits, citizens went back through the citizen initiative process and again imposed term limits on lawmakers, Grant said.
Bramble makes the argument that term-limit opponents have made for years, that the ballot box is the true form of term limits.
Four years ago there were seven new senators elected, and another eight were elected two years ago. Last year, two senators lost in party conventions, and another two lost in the November general election.
"Citizens are exercising term limits in every election," Bramble said. "Term limits, however, do not allow us to maintain a balance between new senators and those with experience. And we need that experience."
However, most legislative turnover now comes from voluntary retirement, not with incumbents losing an election.
The House in 2002 saw the lowest turnover rate in 20 years. Sixty-two incumbents sought re-election, 58 won, only four lost for a re-election rate of 93.5 percent. Eleven House members voluntarily retired. Some of those retirements came midyear, and all appointees for those retirees won in November.