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Rep. seeks to pass term-limit legislation

While unlikely to become law, resolution sparks discussion in General Assembly

A state representative introduced a joint resolution to the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 17 that would impose a three-term limit on state lawmakers in the General Assembly and lengthen the span of a term from two years to four years.

If adopted by both houses, the resolution, introduced by Rep. John Lombardi, D-Providence,  would go before Rhode Island voters in 2014.

A three-term limit would cycle out older legislators who might become ineffective the longer they serve, Lombardi said. Extensive experience in the General Assembly “doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re qualified,” he added.

Newly elected members may bring fresh ideas and approach certain problems differently, Lombardi said. “There’s much to be said about changing the guard (and) reviewing things through different eyes,” he added.

Term limits could also create a legislature that better reflects the changing demographics of Rhode Island by preventing the continuous reelection of traditional candidates, Lombardi said.

He said his 26 years on the Providence City Council influenced his support for term limits. Lombardi was in office when the City Council suggested term limits for the mayor and council members following an FBI investigation into corruption in city hall in the 1990s, he said. Providence voters approved the council’s measures in 2006.

Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown, proposed similar legislation in the General Assembly last year to limit state legislators to eight years in office. Hodgson’s resolution was discussed in the Senate Judiciary Committee but never came up for a vote.

“There was no overtly hostile reaction,” Hodgson said, but “there was also not a consensus that term limits were needed.”

Richard Niemi, professor of political science at the University of Rochester, said he thinks term limits do more harm than good.

“It takes some time to build up expertise on various topics,” he said. “Legislatures are well served by having people who actually know what they’re talking about.”

Fifteen states currently have laws imposing term limits, the majority of which were passed in the early 1990s by voter referenda. In six states, the legislature or state Supreme Court have recently repealed term limits from the 1990s.

Niemi said research shows legislature composition is not drastically affected by the introduction of term limits. Legislatures that are predominately white or male before term limits are introduced may experience slight changes in membership when the limits are implemented, he said, but only “in the short run.”

The House Judiciary Committee must approve Lombardi’s bill before it can be voted upon by the full House.

Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, chairperson of the judiciary committee, refused to comment on whether she would support Lombardi’s bill. “The ballot box is really the most effective term limit,” she said.

Niemi said the relatively liberal term limits in Lombardi’s resolution could improve the probability that the bill will pass.

The resolution would allow elected officials to serve in both houses, meaning legislators could spend a maximum of 24 years in the General Assembly.  But Lombardi said he does not believe the legislation will pass.

“I don’t think it’s going to see the light of day,” he said, adding that his fellow lawmakers lack “the intestinal fortitude to pass the bill, even to consider it.”

Hodgson said discussions about term limits are important, even if Lombardi’s bill does not pass.

“This is a starting point for conversation about the structure of government,” he added.



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