Cushman: Utah Has a Chance to Enact Term Limits and End Career Politicians


By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer

In the summer of 2019, the United Utah Party proposed a ballot initiative to reinstate term limits for Utah state legislators. My colleague Sheely Edwards criticized the proposal as “false advertising,” arguing that the initiative is not necessary in Utah, and its unintended consequences could supersede its possible positive effects. While UUP has since dropped the initiative in order to focus its 2020 efforts on overturning recent changes to the Utah tax code, term limits for state legislators remain extremely important and the referendum should be restarted after 2020.


Checks, Balances, Incentives

Proponents of term limits for legislators frequently argue that they provide a check on legislators. Checks and balances are needed to stop politicians from accruing too much power and to protect democratic systems. Term limits accomplish this by preventing politicians from amassing the power that years, or even decades, in the legislature can give them.

Furthermore, term limits incentivize politicians to do a better job. With limited time in office, politicians cannot afford to waste their tenure on partisanship, in-fighting or filibustering. Time in office becomes more valuable when there is less of it. Politicians would be less focused on reelection, giving them the freedom to step outside of party lines and put time in their schedule that would otherwise be spent fundraising and campaigning. In that same vein, when politicians cannot make a career out of public service, it is much more likely that they are in office for the service instead of the career.


Diversity of Experience

Edwards makes the point that “incumbency advantages” — the advantages that a politician holding office has when running for reelection — are not significant in Utah. Many Utahns often cannot name their national representatives, let alone their state legislators.

Yet, while the incumbency advantage may not be a significant factor in Utah elections, the party of a candidate is often incredibly important, especially for those same uninformed voters who do not even know the names of candidates. Whether or not there is an R or a D next to someone’s name can be all that matters to some voters. In a Republican-majority state like Utah, the Republican party often benefits from this decision-making and holds office for term after term. And because parties often block internal challenges to successful candidates, the unintended consequence is career politicians.

There is no way to change the law to force voters to be more informed in a way that would not infringe on their rights. Term limits cannot change what party is in power or force voters to step out of party-line voting habits, but they can at least introduce some diversity of thought. Even in a polarized state where Republicans are often elected, there would at least be different Republicans entering office, guaranteeing that legislative bodies will not become stagnant. Experienced legislators are important, but ballot initiative opponents acknowledge that having legislators with different experiences can be just as necessary.


Not a Simple Solution

While I advocate for term limits, Edwards provides valid criticism about the negative impact of term limits on political systems. However, that is how checks and balances work. It is how democracy works. In order to protect certain important ideals, we have to sacrifice others. For example, in order to have a strong democracy, the United States has had to sacrifice the swift decisions that can be made in a less democratic state. In order to help maintain a diverse political dialogue and push our legislators to represent us better, we have to sacrifice things like the benefits of experienced legislators.

While Edwards is absolutely right that term limits are not a simple solution. This proposal for term limits is not designed to be a simple solution. It has been designed to provide the benefits of term limits while minimizing some of the flaws of term limits. The proposal designed by UUP instates term limits for consecutive terms — 12 consecutive years for state legislators and eight consecutive years for executive elected officials.

By instituting term limits at all, the proposal guarantees a check on politicians. And by making the limits on consecutive terms rather than total terms in a lifetime, it minimizes some of the criticisms Edwards brings up, like the prevention of experienced legislators from holding office and possible increased influence from special interests.

Ultimately, the ballot initiative by UUP is a good middle ground between adding checks and balances to protect our democracy and modifying our current system to the point that we cause more harm than good. If we continue this fight after 2020, Utah will have the opportunity to implement term limits the right way.


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