Visit your old neighborhood and you might find most things look the same.
The trees might be taller, there might be a new porch or a repainted house, but there’s enough physical similarity to evoke old memories.
It’s when you see strangers mowing your old lawn or getting the mail from Mrs. Flanagan’s mailbox that you feel like a stranger.
I spent a day recently feeling like a stranger in my old work neighborhood, the Legislative Building.
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Things were familiar, for sure. The water fountains haven’t moved, the elevators still run slow and the pressroom is still filthy. But much like in my old neighborhood, the people have changed, even from just two and a half years ago: New people in the clerks’ offices, in the security stations, in Legislative Services and, most important, all new names on the legislators’ office doors.
“We don’t need term limits in Raleigh,” one long-time staffer chuckled; most legislators lose or quit after a few terms.
That staffer had counted informally and found only a handful of Republican legislators who pre-dated the GOP’s ascension to control in 2011 and fewer Democrats who were around when their party reigned.
Now term limits haven’t been on the state political agenda for years, but you hear whispered hopes that they’ll become an issue again.
In 1994, national Republicans put Congressional term limits in their campaign “Contract with America,” and North Carolina Republicans followed suit in their “Contract with North Carolina.”
Neither Congress nor the General Assembly followed through, however. Once in office, Republicans found term limits less appealing.
The allure of term limits is the same today as it was in 1994. With steady legislative turnover in either Washington or Raleigh, we would get new leaders, new ideas and less political dysfunction emanating from long-standing political and personal enmities.
One big drawback, however, is the loss of institutional memory. New legislators often don’t know why things are the way they are, so they fix things that aren’t broken.
Take the 1989 transportation package that Republican Gov. Jim Martin and legislative Democrats devised. To raise money, sales tax revenues above $140 million on auto-related products would go to the Highway Fund. But as a compromise to protect education, the first $140 million collected would go to the General Fund, where it had long gone.
A few sessions later, after much legislative turnover, Republicans started to decry this “$140 million raid on the Highway Fund” when, in fact, it was highways that had raided education. Eventually, the legislature shifted all of that sales tax revenue to the Highway Fund, violating the 1989 revenue compromise.
Term limits would also increase staff influence. When people are new on a job, they tend to seek advice from veterans. With term limits, most legislators would have much less seniority than much of the permanent staff.
There’s another reason North Carolina doesn’t need term limits: redistricting. At the latest, we’ll have our next remapping in 2021, and given the uneven growth between our cities and rural areas, a lot of districts will change drastically.
So, no later than 2022, we’ll have a whole new crew of legislators looking for the water fountains and wondering why some sales taxes go to the Highway Fund.
Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.