State legislators hitting term limits

Jan 2, 2008


Quick, what do term-limited Florida legislators have in common with Britney Spears?

An inability to learn from mistakes, House Minority Leader Dan Gelber said.

"We’ve become the ‘Oops, I did it again’ Legislature," said Gelber, D-Miami Beach, making reference to Spears’ hit song. "We keep having do-overs with stuff like insurance and taxes."

Gelber is one of 30 House members about to hit the eight-year wall of term limits installed in 1992 by a public petition campaign. Now he’s running for the state Senate. His campaign illustrates two quirks of the "Eight is Enough" idea that nearly 77 percent of the voters eagerly embraced 15 years ago.

First, though Gelber won’t return to his House seat, he’s trying to remain a lawmaker and get promoted to the Senate. Gelber will seek to succeed Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-North Miami Beach, who could seek re-
election if she wanted to; many lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, leave voluntarily. Some run for other offices or get executive jobs when new governors come in, while others quit for family or business reasons.

Second, Margolis herself is among a handful of members
who predate term limits. Although the Constitution says eight years is the cap, she will leave after 24 — starting in the House in 1974, going to the Senate from 1980-92, then coming back in 2002.

"Before term limits, there were some disadvantages," Gelber said. "But we’ve reduced the collective depth of knowledge in the Legislature. Everybody has to think in the short term, rather than deciding things like whether we really want to remain a high-growth state living on the vapors of revenue from the housing and construction industry."

There used to be signs that said "Dean" above office doors of the senior member in each chamber, usually an old war horse with more than 20 years in Tallahassee. Today, there would be a
multi-member tie for the title.

Fifty-three who were elected in 1992 or earlier were evicted from the House in 2000, when the constitutional amendment kicked in. Eleven senators, one of whom died that year, were barred from the ballot then.

The 2008 session, by contrast, will be the swan song for 30 in the House and five sitting senators. One term-limited House member, Rep. Bob Allen of Merritt Island, recently resigned in the wake of a solicitation conviction .

Brevard Republican Mike Haridopolos, who plans to finish his legislative career as Senate president from 2010 to 2012, said the infusion of new thinking is healthy, whether it comes from mayors and city commissioners moving up or from the private sector.

"I’m a big fan of term limits. There were 63 other new members when I came in," as a House member in 2000, he said. "It’s what the public wanted and it’s good to have fresh ideas coming down the pike."

Long-serving members warned that legislative staff and lobbyists would become more powerful and that members would cast every vote with an eye toward fast-track advancement.

Members arrive knowing they have at most six years to become speaker or Senate president, or to chair a powerful committee that can attract the kind of campaign contributions needed to make a bid for Congress, governor or a Cabinet seat — or to line up a lucrative lobbying job.

"In 2000, we were looking around and wondering which one of us would be speaker by ’08," Haridopolos said. "But you’re always going to see that, with or without term limits, the jockeying for position. We are competitive individuals by nature."

As it happened, the answer to Haridopolos’ question had arrived a few months ahead of the freshman class of ’00. Speaker Marco Rubio of West Miami was elected in a January special election, getting a one-session jump on the members who will leave with him in the fall.

Seniority’s grim reaper also will bag Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, elected to the House in 1980 and the Senate in 1998. As the first Republican speaker, Webster is the longest-serving lawmaker. He will be succeeded in that role by Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who was elected to the House in 1982 and moved to the Senate in 2000.

But because he started with a two-year term brought on by redistricting from 2000-02, Lawson gets to serve 10 years in the upper chamber. The constitutional amendment only forbids members to appear on the ballot if they have been in office eight years, and Lawson had only been in for six when he was re-elected to his final four-year term in 2006.

Rep. Mitch Needelman, R-Melbourne, is running for clerk of court in Brevard County — which he figures he might be doing, even if he wasn’t term-limited out of the House. In his eight years, Needelman said, he has concentrated on juvenile justice and natural resources because no one has time to become an expert in all areas of government.

"I like the idea of bringing in new blood and new ideas, which sort of brings the whole system back to life again," he said.

Contact Cotterell at 850-671-6545 or