State Sen. Joe Griffo, who represents part of the North Country, is a big believer in term limits. The Utica Republican has been pushing for them since 2007, his first year in the Senate. He told us Friday that if he had his way, there would be a cap on the number of consecutive years any elected state official could serve: senator, Assembly member, comptroller, attorney general and governor.
Not surprisingly, few legislators agree with him on this.
But he has gotten some traction on a campaign to limit the length of time a state legislator can hold a leadership position, such as speaker, majority leader, minority leader or committee chair. We support this wholeheartedly.
State Sen. Joe Griffo
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sen. Griffo got the Senate to quietly adopt an eight-year limit on leadership positions in its rules in 2010. It was renewed in 2011, and he expects it to remain in effect in 2013 and beyond.
He's also leading a bill to give that rule the force of law in both the Senate and Assembly, but it's watered down - the cap would be 12 years instead of eight. It's a bipartisan effort, being led in the Assembly by Sandy Galef, a Democrat from Ossining. It was she who wanted the limit extended to 12 years, Sen. Griffo said, and he compromised in order to make something happen. Nevertheless, he thinks eight years is plenty.
"If you can run the country in eight years," he said, referring to presidential term limit, "you should be able to run a majority in the Senate or Assembly in eight years."
We agree. Twelve years is three governor terms, or a child's entire school career. That's too long for one personality elected in one small part of New York to have such sweeping power over the whole state.
For instance, the late Sen. Ron Stafford, who represented our area in Albany for 37 years, was renowned for his ability to secure hundreds of millions of state dollars and jobs for his rural district: prisons, the 1980 Winter Olympics facilities, 1998 ice storm relief, etc. That was great for us, less good for the other New York taxpayers who footed the bills - but for better or for worse, it was a clear example of a legislator with outsized influence. Even if he hadn't been so popular for his constituent services and the positions he took, there was no way anyone could hope to run against him and win because they couldn't bring home the bacon the way the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee could.
Yet Sen. Stafford only chaired that powerful committee for his last nine years in office. Clearly, a 12-year limit would do little to prevent leaders from getting entrenched.
Yet it's better than nothing. Sheldon Silver has been the Assembly speaker for 18 years, and Joe Bruno was Senate majority leader for 14. That's a lot of time to have the Lower Manhattan and Rensselaer districts dominate.
The bill says it's "intended to keep New York State's leadership fresh and innovative, to allow an influx of new voices and perspectives in order to make better and broader the representation of the people of New York in the State's legislature."
Most lawmakers should want this. It would give each of them a better chance at holding a leadership position at some point, and their districts might get more attention more often, with less geographic concentration on leaders' homes.
It would also help the campaign finance picture since there would be somewhat less incentive for donors to dump all their money onto the power brokers who can do them the most favors. Money often follows power, and as we know from history, that raises the risk of corruption or abuse of power.
For instance, what if we never find out how many New York lawmakers support this bill because legislative leaders like Speaker Silver keep it off the floor? That's what we're trying to avoid.
It's one thing for the governor to have sweeping power over all parts of the state; after all, people from all those parts got to vote for him. But for someone who only represents about 130,000 New Yorkers, in the case of an Assembly member, or 300,000 in the case of a senator, to be one of the "three men in a room" is a responsibility that should be rotated among the 213 legislators.
The Griffo-Galef bill, especially if its cap is changed to eight years, would make New York's Legislature a little less like a parliament, in which the prime minister may only be chosen by a tiny sliver of the population, and more like the U.S. political system, in which there is more direct democracy to help ensure that power is derived more from the will of the people than from parliamentary maneuvering.