People kinda sorta like the idea of term limits for elected officials. Oh, they want to keep their own elected officials in office but the other guys are all crumbs and they want them gone. For elected officials, for obvious reasons, there’s no kinda sorta: they hate the idea. Today, 15 states have term limits for members of their legislatures. Six more passed laws imposing term limits but in four of those states the courts overturned the laws and in two more, ballot referenda calling for term limits were approved by the voters but overturned by…the legislators themselves.
So much for democracy.
Pennsylvania has no term limits for members of its state legislature. Members can stay in these cushy jobs as long as they keep winning elections – and some of them stay a pretty long time. In recent years, three members of Pennsylvania’s legislature have retired, or had voters retire them, after 38 years in the legislature. One of them retired at the age of 88, and when he announced his intention to retire, many people were surprised: they thought he had died years earlier. Of the 203 members currently serving in Pennsylvania’s state House, nine have been in office since before 1990 and another 29 have been in office since before 2000. In the 50-member state Senate, eight members have been in office since before 1990 and another eight joined between 1990 and 2000.
So clearly there’s not much public interest in term limits among state legislators in Pennsylvania and that’s just fine and dandy with those folks.
But lately, members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly have shown a keen interest in establishing a term limit for one state office: executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Yes, for reasons that defy explanation, Pennsylvania has a Fish and Boat Commission. It’s funded entirely by fishing and boating licenses and federal funds and functions with no state money. At the heart of this bizarre term limit controversy is the current fishing license, which has been $21 a year since 2005. Costs have risen since then, leading the commission to cut its staff by 66 employees, to delay improvements and repairs, and to do a little less stocking of fish in the state’s waterways. Now, the commission has decided that enough’s enough and that Pennsylvanians need to bite the bullet and absorb an increase in the cost of fishing licenses – from the current $21 to $27.
And state legislators, who don’t provide any money for the commission but must approve its fees, have said nuts to that.
In response to being told he’s not going to get any more money to do his job, the head of the commission has proposed closing some hatcheries and stocking those that remain open with fewer fish in the coming year.
And state legislators, in a response of their own, have decided that they won’t even discuss this unless the executive director who made these proposals is shown the door.
But herein lies the rub: while the legislature has ultimate authority to approve or reject any proposal to change the price of a fishing license, it doesn’t have the authority to fire the person who recommends such changes. Only the commissioners who appoint the executive director have that authority and they show no inclination to fire a guy they hired and who they think is doing a good job.
Refusing to be deterred, legislators have come up with what they think is an appropriate solution to their problem: they’re proposing to establish term limits for the commission’s executive director position.
That limit? Eight years.
And how long has the current executive director been in his job?
Coincidentally, that happens to be…eight years.
Among the leaders of the movement to establish term limits for this highly sensitive job is the president pro tempore of the state Senate. He’s been in the Senate for 17 years. Before becoming a state senator he served on his borough council and helped run his family’s restaurant, thereby bringing impeccable credentials to his work as a state legislator.
Joining him in this effort to bring qualified people to the commission is the chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. He’s been in the state House for 16 years and brought to his job vast experience as a paramedic and the head of security and safety for a hospital. So he, too, is highly qualified for his job.
Contrast the background of these lawmakers with that of John Arway, executive director of the commission. Arway isn’t some political hack who got the job because he made political contributions to a guy elected governor. No, he’s worked for the commission for 36 years and has some serious academic qualifications for his job: a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in aquatic biology from Tennessee Technological University.
In other words, Arway, unlike the people who want to fire him, is actually qualified for the job he holds.
As if that’s going to help him now. You know that in the end the legislators are going to win and that Arway will be tossed onto the street and people like the president pro tempore and the committee chairman, who know so little about so little, will continue leading Pennsylvania’s mediocre state legislature.
Pennsylvania, it’s only fair to point out, is far from alone when it comes to mediocre state legislatures. No matter where you turn these days it seems as if the kind of people who can barely find their ass with both hands are making important decisions about how state governments serve their constituents.
And mostly, they’re making bad decisions. In this case, a hypocritical decision, too, by seeking to introduce term limits for a job that requires real expertise while continuing to wreak havoc on their state government and Pennsylvania taxpayers year after year after year after year by holding elected offices for which they offer little in the way of qualifications themselves.