Term Limits Detailed

How can we expect the same old politicians running for their same old gerrymandered seats bring new ideas to Albany?

The Problem

New York has no term limits for the governor, the attorney general, the state comptroller, state senators or assemblypersons.  This has resulted in a small group of people staying in the same positions for years with total power over state policy and actions.  The other senators and assemblypersons have no ability to get rid of the old guard, and hence, no willingness to even try, since their position and perks are determined by their seniors.  The result is a stultifying, corrupt and undemocratic mess.

The Solution

New York needs a constitutional amendment that limits the governor, the attorney general and the state comptroller to two consecutive 4-year terms, and the state senators and assemblymen limited to six consecutive 2-year terms.

There are two types of term limits: absolute, where the officeholder has a lifetime limit to the number of terms – for example, a president can only server two terms; and consecutive, where the number of back-to-back terms is limited but the officeholder could run again after someone else serves a term.

New York City currently has consecutive term limits, so in theory, Michael Bloomberg could run for mayor again.

Bill Samuels of EffectiveNY recommends the consecutive approach.

Fast Facts

  • “The more secure an office holder, the more his interests would diverge from those of his constituents.” Andrew Jackson
  • On Election Day – Tuesday, November 4 – more than a third of all races for seats in the New York State Legislature, 74 out of 213, feature a candidate running unopposed. The same holds true when you zoom in on New York City, where 21 of 63 races are uncontested: http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5406-uncontested-democracy-new-york-ballots-offer-voters-startlingly-little-choice.
  • A study of 2002 legislative elections by the National Conference of State Legislatures, for instance, found that only two states had senates with a lower turnover rate than New York. Only three statehouses had lower turnover rates than the New York Assembly: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/27/nyregion/27incumbent.html?_r=0
  • “New York has witnessed the rise of a perpetual professional class of politicians who view elective office as a lifetime career rather than a temporary privilege to serve the public. Career politicians – and the corollary of careerism politics – pose clear and present threats to the health of New York’s democracy.” – Brian Kolb, Assemblyman (R).
  • Incumbents enjoy strong name recognition, and can mobilize extensive resources (chiefly financial) to solidify their position. It is an uphill task for any challenger to enter the ring. Good government advocates, political operatives, and political scientists seem to agree on the reasons that so many races are run unopposed: imbalanced campaign financing, unchecked gerrymandering, and the absence of term limits.
  • “You don’t have to wait for 20 years, until someone dies or their kid takes over or they are indicted. With term limits you lose friends, but you also lose enemies.” –Joshua Klainberg, New York League of Conservation Voters.
  • “Term limits would also strike at a problem more pervasive in Albany than corruption: legislative careerism. The longer they serve, the more many Assembly and Senate members naturally seek to preserve their positions. This, combined with the power of legislative leaders, gives rise to an insular culture that makes individual lawmakers overly reluctant to advance new ideas, challenge entrenched special interests or demand higher ethical standards.” – The New York Post, January 27th, 2015.
  • In 2014, 2 incumbents were defeated in the primary and 5 in the general (96.5% return rate): https://ballotpedia.org/Incumbents_defeated_in_2014’s_state_legislative_elections.


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 over three-hundred-page 2017 State of the State Presentation, Governor Cuomo advocated for term limits.  This is the entire section:

Current term limits require members of the Legislature to seek re-election every two years, yet there are no limits on the number of terms they may seek.  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)

The Governor’s language appears to be artfully vague:

  • It appears to only cover new legislatures, so presumably existing legislatures might spend decades in their jobs;
  • It’s not clear who the statewide officials are (all of them? Some of them? The Governor?) and what the limits will be;
  • It’s also not clear whether the terms are consecutive or absolute.

It won’t be clear what the Governor is actually proposing unless and until it is codified in a bill.

Other States

According to Ballotopedia, 15 state legislatures have term limits. In the United States as a whole, there are 1,972 state senate seats and 5,411 state house seats. 562 of the 1,972 state senate seats, or 28.5%, come with a limit. 1,368 of the 5,411 state house seats, or 25%, come with a limit. Of the total of 7,383 state legislative seats, 1,930 (26.1%) are limited.

In the nine states where the limits are consecutive, once a state legislator has served the maximum number of terms in office, he or she, if eligible, can run for office for the state’s other legislative chamber, or leave the legislature. These states are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.  Alternatively, after a period of time (typically 2 years) out of office from that legislative, the legislator is allowed to run again for his/her old office.

In six of the 15 states with limits on state legislators, there is a lifetime limit. These states are Arkansas, California, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada and Oklahoma.


California has perhaps the most revealing experiences with term limits.

This state first passed Proposition 140 in 1990, which was more of a scorched earth policy for term limits – state assembly members were limited 3 two-year terms and state senate members to 2 four-year terms. These were not consecutive term limits – a member was banned for life for the same office once those limits were reached.

As might be predicted from the research, these changes were problematic:

As a body, the Legislature is less likely to alter the Governor’s Budget, and its own budget process neither encourages fiscal discipline nor links legislators’ requests to overall spending goals. In addition, legislative oversight of the executive branch has declined significantly. The authors’ interviews with members and their staff revealed a widespread sense in Sacramento that something needs to be done soon to provide more stability and expertise to the Legislature’s policymaking process.

As a result of these issues, Proposition 28 was proposed and passed in 2012.  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:

Some in California say the change is already having an effect. Assemblyman Ken Cooley of Sacramento County says he’s seen a heightened interest among new lawmakers to seek out information for their committee assignments and try to build expertise in a subject area. Developing a serious depth of knowledge wasn’t as realistic as before, he says. State Controller John Chiang agrees that he’s also seen a shift in attitudes: “A lot of freshmen, in their public comments, are taking a long view—that six, seven or eight years from now the actions they take will have an impact.”

In addition to the legislature, statewide office holders (other than the insurance commissioner) are limited to two 4-year terms.  All California term limits are absolute and not consecutive.


2017 State of the State,” Governor Andrew Cuomo, January, 2017.

California Rethinks Term Limits, Again,” by Chris Kardish, Governing, February, 2014.

California Term Limits,” League of Women Voters of California.

Corruption cauldron: To fix Albany — term limits,” by Tim Hoefer, The New York Post, January 27, 2015.

The Effects of Legislative Term Limits,” By Jennifer Drage Bowser, The Council of State Governments, 2005.

The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures,” by John M. Carey, Richard G. Niemi and Lynda W. Powell, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 271-300.

Fair Elections for New York State,” Citizens Union, November, 2012.

Frequently Asked Questions About Term Limits,” National Conference of State Legislators.

How Have Term Limits Affected the California Legislature?” Public Policy Institute of California, Issue #94, November 2004.

NYC Term Limits Revisited,” by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Gotham Gazette, March 14, 2005.

Once Again, City Voters Approve Term Limits,” by Javier C. Hernandez, November 3, 2010.

State Legislatures with Term Limits,” Ballotopedia.

Term Limits for Municipal Elected Officials: Executive and Legislative Branches,” by Patrick J. Egan, Ph.D., prepared for the New York City Charter Revision Commission, June 2010.

The Truth About Term Limits,” by Alan Greenblatt, Governing, 2006.