After the 2010 election, North Carolina witnessed the end of the longest political regime in the state’s history: the 17 year reign of Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight (D – Dare). The event serves as a sobering reminder of how skilled politicians can wield enduring power, and underscores the need for limits on the length of legislative leadership.
Basnight’s nearly two-decades-long tenure was unprecedented in North Carolina political history. Trailing at a distant second in length of tenure are Speaker Liston Ramsey (D – Madison) (1981-88) and the felonious regime of Speaker Jim Black (D – Mecklenburg) (1999-2006). Both Ramsey and Black served seven years at the helm of the N.C. House.
This week, the legislature will likely consider a constitutional amendment to add term limits to legislative leadership positions. If successful, the bill (HB 61) will let voters decide in 2012 if they’d like to leave the door open for another Marc Basnight to run the legislature, or if there should be limitations to legislative leadership terms. From the looks of it, North Carolinians are fully in support of term limits. An August 2011 Civitas poll shows that 67 percent of state unaffiliated voters favor limiting legislators to serving no more than two terms in a position of leadership.
HB 61 would bring the legislature in line with other leadership positions in state government. Both the Governor and Lieutenant Governor are bound by a two-term limit. According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 15 states have some sort of legislative term limits law on the books.
Term limits can be a good way to bring in new ideas and management styles to the helm of the General Assembly. Limiting the number of terms an individual can serve in a position of legislative leadership will help the General Assembly become more dynamic and diverse, by ensuring a stream of new faces to run state government and by preventing skilled politicians from monopolizing power.
House Speaker Thom Tillis (R – Mecklenburg) has taken this lesson to heart. He has committed himself to not only term limits in a legislative leadership role, but term limits as a legislator. He recently told the Wilmington Star News that he would only serve one more term in the General Assembly. As a co-sponsor to HB 61, he is reassuringly coupling talk with walk.