In 1992, more than three-fourths of Florida voters approved Amendment Nine. As it stands today, Amendment Nine prevents state representatives from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms and state senators from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms.
Legislators can move from the House to the Senate or vice versa without leaving the legislature, meaning in theory, legislators can serve (at maximum) 16 years in the legislature before being forced to leave. After two years away from Tallahassee, the clock is reset and former legislators can come back as if they had never served before.
This term limits law at first glance seems beneficial — in 1992, Florida’s voters certainly thought so. However, as numerous unintended consequences have resulted from this law’s implementation, it is now time to rethink Florida’s term limits law.
Examining the Issue and Finding a Solution
Among the most significant unforeseen results of Amendment Nine is the concentration of power in the hands of unelected lobbyists — those who stay in Tallahassee for decades with healthy salaries.
In an interview with the Florida Political Review, Florida House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, stated that after seeing firsthand how “a lot of institutional power has flowed to the lobbyists,” he has grown to be in favor of a revised term limits law.
“A lot of members seem to gravitate toward a longer term limit length,” said Jenne. As someone who has served since 2014, he has since noticed that it took four or five years for some lawmakers to become acclimated to the legislative process and find themselves in the legislature, where everyone has a role to play.
However, only a few years after truly discovering how they can best put their unique skill sets to use in the legislature, lawmakers are kicked out of their seats (reelection defeats are not as common in the Florida Legislature as in congressional races). Then, constituents have another new legislator who will have their own long period of adjustment.
At this point, the term limits law, rather than protecting constituents from elected officials who might forget who they were serving and turn to seedy political machinations, actually does a disservice to constituents.
This is the best case scenario.
Since the current term limits allow only eight years spent in each chamber, many legislators enter and immediately set their sights on another office. This has resulted in legislators using their position as a means to gain name recognition and to add another resume booster to future campaign flyers.
Lawmakers then leave their constituents, and often without representation for some period of time (special elections can be scheduled with partisan considerations in mind). When the constituents do get a new representative and/or senator, the process of adjusting into the legislature starts all over again.
It isn’t necessarily their fault. They know they will have to leave soon, so they might as well begin planning for it.
U.S. Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Byron Donalds, Matt Gaetz, Al Lawson, Bill Posey, Darren Soto, Daniel Webster, Gus Bilirakis and Greg Steube as well as Sen. Marco Rubio — a list equivalent to exactly half of the entire Florida delegation to Congress — all previously served in the Florida Legislature.
While some of these members would doubtless have moved on from the legislature eventually — even if term limits were not a factor — the need to plan ahead set up their newly obtained Tallahassee offices as part of political calculations to leave and become Congressmen and Congresswomen.
Many of them are extremely talented legislators; the state government would have benefited from having their voices for a few more years. Both the legislature and constituents would benefit from having the full attention of politicians who were guaranteed more job security.
Jenne did concede that extending the term limit length “would look self-serving” to a great deal of the public. However, he pointed out that after the governor, speaker of the house or the president of the senate and their rules and budget chairs, come the lobbyists.
Jenne described those same lobbyists as “some of the very most powerful people in the state of Florida [who] were not elected by anyone — and get paid millions of dollars.”
Our system of democracy is meant to have those we elect represent the people who elected them: not special interests and not lobbyists. What happens in Tallahassee often, at its best, goes against the spirit of representative government, and at its worst, completely ignores constituents.
It seems beneficial to give elected officials more power by letting them stay for a few more years than to allow unelected and highly paid political operators to determine what happens to a large swath of the bills filed every legislative session in the Florida Legislature.
In his final words, Jenne compared our form of government to a building: “representative democracy works, but we need to take a pressure washer to it — we need to make sure we don’t have any termites.”
Would you harbor one problem-causing pest in your home just to prevent another, less serious insect from invading?
Extending term limits in each chamber to be eight years longer would likely reduce the institutional power of lobbyists. This way, lawmakers would have more time to accrue power that they use to bring aid to their constituents. These legislators could then more thoroughly understand the legislative process instead of depending upon the lobbyists who are really the only ones with enough experience to know the Capitol and its temporary occupants, inside and out.
So, although Amendment Nine may have been a good-faith attempt to strengthen Florida’s democratic institutions, it really has contributed to the erosion of those institutions. Now is the time to revise Florida’s term limits law and allow the voices of the people to break through the noise.
Check out other recent articles from Florida Political Review here.
Featured image: The Florida State Capitol in 2016. Unmodified photo by DXR used under a Creative Commons license (https://bit.ly/3wj13jm).