Our Opinion: Extend legislators’ terms, but add a recall provision

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North Carolina voters may have the chance to impose term limits on state lawmakers — if they also agree to extend terms in the General Assembly from two years to four.

Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, introduced a bill that would place a constitutional amendment for four-year legislative terms on the ballot for Nov. 6, 2018. The amendment would limit state lawmakers to a maximum of three four-year terms in either chamber. Our own Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, signed on as a co-sponsor.

House Bill 193 also seeks to synchronize terms for legislators, judges, sheriffs, district attorneys, clerks of superior court, coroners, state superintendents and Council of State officers with U.S. House elections, preventing them from taking place in odd-numbered years.

Term limits are urgently needed in Raleigh as well as in Washington. Preventing perpetual service would make our General Assembly better resemble the citizen legislature it was always intended to be. Instead of having a permanent class of career politicians, we should be led by fellow citizens who take turns serving for the good of their state and communities — but who, after a reasonable amount of time, return to their occupations or retire.

Twelve years is a good start, whether that’s three four-year terms or six two-year terms. But vague language in the bill might allow lawmakers to stretch their tenure to 24 years, which is too long in our book.

HB 193 would amend the N.C. Constitution to read that state senators “shall not have served more than three terms in the Senate” and that representatives “shall not have served more than three terms in the House of Representatives.”

That sounds like it would be constitutionally permissible for a representative to serve three House terms, then run for Senate and stay there for an additional three terms.

Is this a bug or a feature? If sponsors are serious about term limits, a committee substitute could close this glaring loophole.

The bill’s main objective is to double the length of legislative terms. A common complaint among state lawmakers and U.S. congressmen, who also serve in two-year increments, is that their short terms force them into a cycle of near-constant campaigning for re-election.

We share legislators’ frustration with never-ending campaigns and can sympathize with the distraction this represents. But two-year terms make lawmakers more accountable to their constituents. If we don’t approve of the job they’re doing in Raleigh, we can vote them out every other year.

A provision allowing for recall elections by petition would let lawmakers have their four-year terms and maintain voter accountability. Seventeen states — including Georgia — currently allow legislative recalls.

In its current form, HB 193 is a mixed bag. The term limit provision is a good concept, but its loose language could allow senators and representatives to double-dip by switching chambers. Four-year terms mean more work and less campaigning, but unless voters have the right of recall, it could make our lawmakers harder to send home — and, for that reason, less responsive.

As a co-sponsor, perhaps Martin would be amenable to introducing the necessary changes.