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Term limits could be around the corner for General Assembly

RALEIGH — Most longtime observers of government would agree that political power kept in the same hands for a long period of time isn’t a good thing.

It’s why Americans limit the length of electoral terms — usually to two, four or six years — and why governors and presidents are limited in the number of consecutive terms that they can serve.

When power is kept in the same hands for too long, the people who hold that power almost invariably rely on fewer and fewer people for advice. They become insulated. Power becomes more concentrated.

It might be nice to believe that those folks of your political persuasion aren’t like that. History shows otherwise. Human nature, not political ideology, seems to be the driving factor that leads to political power becoming concentrated.

New Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis seems to get that.

Tillis is the primary force behind an effort to limit the terms of the House and Senate leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly. Of course, if legislation passes, that would mean his own tenure as one of the powerful politicians in the state would come to a relatively quick end.

Legislation now before the House would limit both the House speaker and Senate president pro tem to two two-year terms in the top legislative jobs. It would ask voters to put the limits into the state constitution.

The bill could undergo changes, but some version is expected to be approved. Senate leader Phil Berger also supports the idea, having filed a similar bill last year.

Tillis has said that a statute, rather than a constitutional amendment, may suffice to limit the terms, that no legislative leader would dare try undo a law on the books in order to extend his or her own leadership term. But the bill that has emerged in his chamber would put the limitation into the state constitution.

Some legislators have also talked of extending the limits to four terms, to match the time that a governor could potentially serve.

Whatever the result, the legislation would mark the end of a recent trend of long tenures of legislative leaders in North Carolina.

During much of the past century, tradition dictated that legislative leaders would serve a single term. That changed in 1979, when Carl Stewart was elected to a second term as House speaker. Liston Ramsey followed Stewart as House leader and served four terms in the job. Jim Black matched Ramsey with eight years as House speaker.

Marc Basnight became the longest-serving leader of a legislative chamber in North Carolina history, holding the job of Senate president pro tem from 1993 until last year.

Basnight survived for that long in the position by avoiding some of the pitfalls of power that befell his contemporaries.

Still, plenty of people would say he was there too long, that anytime someone is commonly referred to as a “political boss” a structural problem exists.

It may not exist much longer.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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