Inside the Capitol

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Redistricting, term limits tie lawmakers in knots


SANTA FE – You can't get politicians to vote against their own self-interests. All politicos talk about the sacrifices they make in order to serve the public. But impede their path to the next election and you have a fight on your hands every time. Redistricting and term limits are the best examples.
Look at any redistricting map in any state and you will see some mighty strange shapes. They are the result of the majority party's efforts to protect their own and take some of the other guy's stuff.
At its exaggerated worst, we saw Texas congressional districts, gerrymandered by Democrats in 2001, redrawn by Republican legislators after gaining control in 2002. The result was a switch of more than 10 congressional seats from Democrat to Republican.
A few other states did it also but the impact wasn't as great. That was the year Texas Democratic senators holed up in New Mexico for a month before going home to face the music.
If only there were a way to district fairly. But we aren't going to find a majority of any legislative body that is willing to do what is best for the state.
In states that allow voters to put items on general election ballots, independent redistricting commissions have been created in order to draw fair districts. But if any of those proposals ever favor the minority party, the majority party always springs into action.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer fired the chairwoman of the independent commission for recommending a congressional redistricting plan that created too many competitive districts. The governor doesn't have the power to appoint or remove the committee chairperson but she did it anyway because competition is bad.
In New Mexico, where Democrats rule, the opposite is the case. Republicans want competition. Democrats don't. The only way to take redistricting power away from a legislature is to go to court. That is where state House Democrats are right now, appealing to the Supreme Court the decision of a judge it appointed. Democrats essentially contend the decision creates too many competitive districts.
Technically, it isn't just Democrats appealing the House redistricting. The suit is in the name of the entire Legislature and we, the taxpayers, are paying for it. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, so they get to decide.
Term limits for legislators is another area in which lawmakers' self-interest rules. The governor and other statewide elected officials are limited to two four-year terms. Legislative terms have no limits.
Rep. Dennis Kintigh, of Roswell, introduced term limits this year for the third time in his brief legislative career. The bill already has been killed but Kintigh evidently wants to keep the issue before the public.
Kinthgh's bill would have limited all state lawmakers to 12 years in office. A great argument for the idea is that it allows a lawmaker to think more about what is good for New Mexico rather than what it will take to get reelected.
On the other side of the coin, term limits put more power in the hands of paid staff who stick around for a career. It also gives longtime lobbyists an advantage.
But voters tend to like term limits. In 1994 Rep. Newt Gingrich led the GOP in taking over the U.S. House of Representatives. The centerpiece of the takeover was a list of promises called "Contract with America."
Knowing Gingrich, he had tested all items in the contract for public acceptance. One of them was term limits. Gingrich required all Republicans running for office for the first time to pledge to serve only three terms – six years – and then step down.
A term limit bill was introduced in the first 100 days of the 1995 Congress. It failed miserably but Gingrich said he had kept his promise.
As for the House members who had pledged to stay only six years, somehow it slipped the minds of all but a few.


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