In New York, according to the state constitution, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and state comptroller are elected to four year terms, and state senators and assemblypersons to two year terms. However, there is no limit to how many terms any candidate might have. Louis Lefkowitz, for example, was attorney general for nearly 22 years. This has remained true despite the fact that term limits have always been popular with the voters.
Term limits became a major issue around the country in the 1990’s, with 15 states imposing them. Unsurprisingly, these measures were adopted by referendums, since legislators have not been eager to turn themselves out of office.
There is now a significant body of research on the effects of term limits. There is, of course, a significant increase in turnover, but there are other affects as well. According to a major study, “Perhaps the most noticeable changes in many term limited legislatures have to do with leadership. Leaders rise to the top more quickly than before, but stay for a briefer period and wield less influence than in the past.” This would be of major help in New York, where new blood is desperately needed in the legislature.
One of the largest studies done of nearly 3000 state legislators nationwide, found major changes in legislative behavior: “…term limits decrease the time legislators spend securing pork, and heighten the priority they place on the needs of the state and on the demands of conscience relative to district interests.”
Term limits, however, are not a cure all. Campaign finance and redistricting also have profound effects on turnover and legislative behavior. Also, since term limits weaken the legislative branch, it’s critically important to have term limits on the executive as well. Legislators need more time to rise through the system to become senate or assembly leaders, and to have as much experience and knowledge as the governor or other members of the governor’s administration that s/he must work with. California recently changed the length of time state representatives can serve to address this imbalance. It increased the number of years a legislator can remain in the California State Assembly from 6 to 12 years, and from 8 years to 12 years in the senate. The results so far have been positive.
New York State has a nearby example of the successful implementation of term limits – New York City.
Term Limits in New York City
Term limits began in 1993 when New Yorkers voted to “limit all elected officials in New York City to two consecutive terms in office” by a vote of 59 to 41 percent.
Although term limits were popular with the voters, many city leaders and academics were skeptical. From The Gotham Gazette:
“My initial reaction to the term limits was negative, but the experience of how they have worked has changed my mind,” said John Mollenkopf, professor at the City University of New York. “On balance, I think this feature of government does create openings for fresh thinking and new leadership.”
“The days of ridiculing the council as ‘less than a rubber stamp’ are long gone,” said Neil Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which opposed term limits. “And the days when the council spent most of its time naming streets are also over.”
In 2008, city officials extended the term limit for those in city government jobs to three terms to enable Mayor Bloomberg to run for a third term. However, in 2010, a “New York City Term Limits Reduction” measure was passed by nearly three-quarters of the city’s voters. This changed term limits back to two for the mayor, city council members, the public advocate, borough presidents and the comptroller. These term limits are consecutive, not absolute, so after skipping a turn in office, a previously-elected officeholder could run again for the same job.
Term limits in New York City have become popular with many academics, good government groups and the voters. It’s also had an impact on elections for city council, with more competitive campaigns and higher turnover.
In a study by Citizens Union, “…city council elections in 2005 and 2009 were compared to state legislative elections taking place within New York City in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012, and found a striking lack of competition and voter choice in state legislative elections. City council races, however, offered voters more choices, and were more competitive under several measures.”
Although the difference in campaign finance laws between the city council and the state legislature are stark and effect these numbers, term limits clearly have an impact of bringing in fresh blood to the city’s leadership.
What the Governor Proposes
In his 2017 State of the State Book, Governor Cuomo advocated for term limits:
The Governor proposes a constitutional amendment to create 4-year legislative terms for members of the Senate and the Assembly. The proposed constitutional amendment would also impose 8-year term limits for new members, and impose term limits for statewide officials. (p.298)
Until the final bill is negotiated, it’s not clear whether the terms are consecutive or absolute.