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Another Voice: Term limits for state officials will reduce corruption

By Michael P. Kearns

The unethical and criminal acts by New York State politicians since 2000 manifestly make the case for term limits in New York State politics. More specifically, former Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos abused their power and harmed the people of New York State. Term limits would have prevented this and helped New York as a state find ethical and principled leaders who look to serve others rather than themselves.

The idea of term limits in a democracy started with Aristotle in his book “Politics.” He stated, “no office should ever be held twice by the same person.” In ancient Greece, for elected officials randomly elected by lottery, there were term limits of one-tenth of one year. The idea was to have citizens experience both the aspects of being ruled and ruling the populace. Assuring that the most people in a city-state received this experience required rapid turnover. This goal of having every citizen experience elected office is arguably not possible in modern democratic nation-states.

In the United States, term limits were debated at the country’s Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional Convention provided that the president would be ineligible for a second term. The Founding Fathers’ plan was to have the president limited to a single seven-year term. At first the U.S. Constitution omitted term limits, and Thomas Jefferson believed the omission to be one of the defects of the document. In the modern context, arguments for term limits assert that they prevent tyranny and protect electoral competition.

The lack of term limits favors incumbents. Incumbency, according to psychologists, favors the status quo, through which people stick with early choices and do not consider alternatives. The playing field in elections is not level because incumbents are able to control agendas, obtain greater media coverage and assert control over the instruments of power. There is also a temptation to use public money to maintain their place in office.

Term limits benefit the people by forcing turnover, which encourages the creation of successors. There will also be the benefit of spreading out power and not concentrating it in a single person. This is endorsed at the national level with term limits imposed on the office of the president of the United States.

Given the actions by the former state leaders above and the abuses of office that naturally followed, a built-in limitation would have benefited us all. It is time for term limits, an idea that is long overdue. Therefore, I am asking for support concerning my bill A.7775/S.4470 regarding term limits for New York’s Legislature, governor, comptroller and attorney general.

Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, represents the 142nd District in the Assembly.