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Buffalo State professor tells lawmakers that term limits are no panacea

Term limits have not panned out as the cure for improving voter turnout, enhancing electoral competition or reducing legislative gridlock, a local college professor told Erie County lawmakers Friday.

Peter R. Yacobucci, a political science professor at SUNY Buffalo State, addressed a public hearing held for two local laws aimed at restricting the number of times the county’s elected officials may consecutively run for office.

Yacobucci was one of only two residents who addressed the Legislature regarding the two proposals.

One, sponsored by Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, would limit all of Erie County’s elected officials to 12 consecutive years in office, starting after the Nov. 3 general election. The second, sponsored by Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, would restrict current officeholders to the same 12-year cap, but retroactively.

In either scenario, 25 years of academic research reveals that the proposed benefits of term limits have not been realized in many of the different legislative and executive jurisdictions across the country in which they have been imposed since the early 1990s, Yacobucci said.

“Instead, what we’ve seen is a series of negative consequences through term limits that are not anticipated when the authors of term limits have pushed the bills,” he said.

“There has been increased legislative gridlock because of term limits as individuals have tried to find their way through individuals in the legislative process. There has also been a significant loss of policy knowledge ... as experts who have built up their expertise over the years have been turned out,” Yacobucci added.

He said that often, legislatures have been compelled to increase their non-elected legislative staffs to compensate for the gap in policy knowledge that was lost.

Yacobucci said recent academic literature on the subject recommends that other avenues be sought to achieve the goals sought by the imposition of term limits.

It was unclear Friday whether one or both of the proposed local laws is likely to come before the Legislature for a vote by next Thursday, when the lawmakers meet in regular session.

“I don’t know if anybody plans to push theirs for a vote next week,” said Lorigo.

“I want to wait and see how people are feeling, take the temperature of the room. If they both come to a vote on the floor, I hope to see people support the one that isn’t hypocritical,” Lorigo added.

Hardwick has said it would be unfair to make the law retroactive, while Lorigo insists current officeholders should be held to the exact same 12-year restriction as future officeholders.

Under Hardwick’s proposal, there would be a limit of six two-year terms for lawmakers, and three four-year terms for all countywide officeholders, including the county executive, sheriff, clerk, comptroller and district attorney.

If either law is approved by a majority of the Legislature and signed by the county executive, it would then appear as a public referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. If ratified by voters, the law would take effect in 2016.