Since he began knocking on doors more than four years ago, Rep. William Petit, Jr. says he has heard more constituents ask for state lawmakers to adopt term limits than any other specific policy.
Petit, a Plainville Republican, has filed legislation that would start the process of amending the state constitution to limit the number of consecutive years which a state representative or senator could serve.
The legislation is almost dead on arrival in the Government Administration and Elections Committee where it has been filed. Sen. Mae Flexer, co-chairwoman of the panel, said Friday the group would not be debating the concept and would be “squarely focused on things that are responsive to the crisis that are happening in our country.”
Petit acknowledged the coming session would be dominated by issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and legislation left undone last year when the virus cut the legislative session short in March. Still, he said he wanted to start the conversation.
“Personally, I always thought we should have [term limits] before I got into the legislature. It should be something that’s up for discussion. I guess my personal feeling is it should be public service not a career for people,” he said Friday.
Around the country, 15 states have adopted term limits for their state lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Here in New England, Maine has limited its state representatives and senators to eight consecutive years since 1996.
As it’s written, Petit’s resolution would set the limit at 10 years as either a senator or representative or a total of 10 years in both roles combined. Once they hit the limit, lawmakers would be required to take at least two years off before running for another legislative seat. He said the specific limits in the bill were “somewhat arbitrary” and meant to be a starting point for debate.
“I’ve been there for four years now. It seems like a long time.” Petit said. He said he couldn’t fathom how some senior legislators have been in office for decades. “It’s so hard for me to even imagine.”
Flexer said term limits actually reduce voters’ access to government by limiting their choices at the polls. Currently, Connecticut residents get to pick an entirely new General Assembly every two years, she said. By limiting who voters can pick, term limits often find the people with the most knowledge of how the government operates in influential and unelected positions, she said.
“What happens in states with term limits is the people with the institutional knowledge and the history of how things are done end up being the lobbyists and the staff. People who are not elected by the citizens of a given state,” she said.
Petit said there is some validity to the argument that legislating often requires experience and an institutional knowledge that is difficult to pick up in just a few years. The subjects before the legislature can be complicated and dense. Petit, who is a medical doctor, said the work of the Public Health Committee came naturally to him. But other panels like the Energy and Technology Committee or the Appropriations Committee take time to grasp.
“It’s way more technical than I would have imagined. I was on Appropriations for four years and there were gargantuan numbers like crazy. It can be hard to deal with the density of information and the complexity of some of the rules of the finances,” he said.
But even if it takes new lawmakers two or three years to get the “lay of the land,” Petit said a 10 or 12 year term limit would still give them plenty of productive years in the legislature.
Petit was unsure whether there would be “enough bandwidth” in the coming session for serious consideration of his resolution. He said there were a lot of other issues “left simmering on the stove” when last year’s session was cut short.
“I get it. It’s a long philosophical discussion so I think it’s probably not on the short list given the pandemic. I think that’s just a situational reality. But again, a number of people have requested it and I’m supposed to represent the people,” he said.