Members of the Georgia House Representatives are sworn in during the first session in the House chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, January 14, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Some Georgia lawmakers seek term limits for themselves and their peers

Several Georgia lawmakers so strongly believe in term limits that they plan to boot themselves from office after eight years at the Capitol.

One of them, state Rep. Michael Caldwell, is also proposing an amendment to the Georgia Constitution that would impose term limits on all 236 legislators in the General Assembly.

Caldwell, who took office in 2012, said he and other legislators should step aside after four straight two-year terms, making way for new leaders.

Though 1 in 6 state legislative districts already changed hands after November’s elections, Caldwell said voters deserve fresh representation every few years to avoid being stuck with the same old candidates who usually win re-election.

“It’s a good way to eliminate the incumbency advantage and ensure that every once in a while you have a regular rotation,” said Caldwell, a Republican from Woodstock.

Caldwell has previously proposed similar constitutional amendments each term since he was elected, but those measures haven’t gone far. He doesn’t expect this year’s measure, House Resolution 6, to receive much consideration either.

State Rep. Michael Caldwell, R-Woodstock, is proposing an amendment ot the Georgia Constitution that would impose term limits on state legislators. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At least two other legislators besides Caldwell also plan to term-limit themselves after eight years in office: state Reps. Wes Cantrell and Scot Turner. Cantrell, a Republican from Woodstock, has four years left before leaving office, and Turner, a Republican from Holly Springs, intends to depart in two years.

Most Georgia lawmakers aren’t excited about the idea of losing their part-time jobs, which pay about $17,000 a year.

Georgia’s longest-serving legislator, state Rep. Calvin Smyre, said term limits aren’t necessary because voters have a chance to vote out their representatives every two years.

Term limits disempower elected officials and embolden government bureaucrats and agencies, said Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus who has served in the General Assembly since 1975.

“With term limits, the bureaucracy runs the government, not the elected officials, because they’re turned over so quickly,” Smyre said. “The (Georgia) Constitution says the people shall elect their representatives, and to me, that’s the term limit.”

The effort to term-limit elected officials gained ground after then-U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia included the proposal as part of his Contract With America in 1994. That made term limits part of a Republican movement to limit the power of government.

There are 15 states that currently have term limits for legislators, but no states have adopted term limits since 2000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Georgia, legislators average about six years in office, Caldwell said, so term limits would only affect the most senior and powerful lawmakers. Those officials are also the most likely to oppose term limits.

Even if term limits don’t move forward, the idea is worth discussion at the Georgia Capitol, Cantrell said.

“We need fresh eyes down here at the Capitol as often as possible, and term limits are the easiest and clearest way to make that happen,” Cantrell said. “There is a downside to term limits because we’d lose some of the best people. But the main issue for me is the advantages of incumbency. It’s very challenging to beat an incumbent because of all the built-in advantages.”

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