Senator wants to lengthen legislators’ terms

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 5, 2015.

PHOENIX — One state senator wants to ask voters to promote more harmony at the Capitol and have more knowledgeable legislators — by lengthening the terms of those they elect.

The Senate Committee on Government voted Wednesday to move forward SCR 1009, a resolution subject to voter approval to extend the terms of all Arizona legislators from two years to four years. It would also change the limit from four consecutive terms to two terms to keep the eight-year maximum in place in each chamber.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, the resolution’s sponsor, said that by staying in office for a longer period of time, legislators can better develop relationships with fellow members, especially those in the other party.

“I think having friendships and relationships across the aisle reduces so-called partisan bickering, which we get criticized a lot for,” he said

Critics argue the bill eliminates legislative accountability that the two-year term provides.

Several provisions are added to ensure that current members would be able to serve at least the eight years. If passed, the measure would go to the ballot in 2016 and, if approved, would implement the extended terms beginning in 2017.

Kavanagh has reasons beyond just promoting more bipartisanship between Republicans and Democrats for pushing the measure. He said having two-year terms for all legislators carries unintended negative consequences.

“It promotes a less informed body,” he said. “With two-year terms, at any one point 25 percent of the members are rookies, novices. They aren’t really aware of the issues as well as veterans … and aren’t as effective.”

Kavanagh also said the high number of elections enables dark money donors to donate more and leverage more influence.

“With having to run every two years, you’re always fundraising, you’re always worrying about getting enough money to run,” Kavanagh said.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said time seems to move faster with two-year terms.

“This time next year, we’re back into a campaign cycle again,” she said.

Kavanagh previously served in the House for the maximum eight years of four consecutive two-year terms before switching to a Senate seat in November.

Another resolution lengthening legislators’ terms failed in the House last year when it made it to the floor. Representatives against the measure were mainly Republicans and those in favor were mostly Democrats. Kavanagh voted for the resolution then.

In the Senate committee this time around, three Republicans and two Democrats voted for Kavanagh’s resolution and one Republican and one Democrat voted against it.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said while he liked the idea, there is merit to the idea that two-year terms hold legislators more accountable to voters and voted against the resolution.

He said he serves on a school board with four-year terms and relationships are developed with those across the aisle, but having legislators who are re-elected every two years is helpful.

“I would have liked to have seen this bill go somewhere in the middle,” Quezada said, “where we could have had four-year terms for the Senate and retained the two-year terms in the House so that there’s still some aspect of keeping some legislators accountable to voters on a more frequent basis.”

That system would mirror the setup in other state legislatures across the country. Thirty-eight states have four-year terms for state senators, though, only five states have such a term length for their lower house members.

This type of legislative system, like Congress, has a lower body elected every two years as a way to be more responsive to the people, said Kim Fridkin, a political science professor at Arizona State University.

“In contrast, senators with longer terms would be more insulated from public pressure and would more likely, perhaps, take on a more trustee role,” Fridkin said.

Kavanagh argued that, while voters have the option, they don’t vote en masse to replace poorly performing legislators.

“You have to oust a lot of legislators to change an entire chamber and that hardly, if ever, happens,” Kavanagh said. “The idea that there is accountability there is also overblown.”

He added incumbent legislators are also difficult to defeat. In Arizona legislative elections in 2014, only four incumbents running for reelection in the House were defeated in during the primary or general election, while none were tossed out in the Senate.

This isn’t the only resolution up this session to change some of Arizona’s unique setup for elections and government.

One resolution would shift the state away from House multimember districts to 60 individual House districts. The state has 30 legislative districts which elect one senator and two representatives. Arizona is one of only 10 states with legislative chambers that employ multimember districts.

Another resolution would create the position of a lieutenant governor to serve as joint ticket with the governor. Arizona is one of only five states that do not have such a position with the Secretary of State next in line to the governorship.

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