Term limits in Pennsylvania: A doomed cause?

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Rep. Mike Jones, R-93rd District, is sworn in during the Swearing-in Day ceremony at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

With polls showing the majority of Pennsylvanians support term limits, freshman Rep. Mike Jones' bill to do away with career politicians should be a slam dunk.

But it's not voters the York Township Republican needs to convince. 

Jones is far from the first Pennsylvania lawmaker to try to coax his 252 colleagues in the General Assembly — the second-highest paid state legislature in the nation — to voluntarily limit their tenures.

Similar proposals have been made since the 1970s, and none gained traction. Few — including Jones himself — are willing to bet this latest attempt will buck that trend.

So why bother?

Because, Jones said, he made a promise to voters on the campaign trail last year.

"I do agree it's going to be very hard to pass," the Dallastown-area businessman said. "But there is overwhelming support among voters, and I think I have an obligation to put it forward. ... I promised I'd do it."

Jones and co-author Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin County, sent House Bill 815 to the State Government Committee last week. It calls for a state constitutional amendment limiting lawmakers to 12 consecutive years in office.

The bill would have to pass two consecutive legislative sessions and then would be decided by voters — 70 percent of whom  say they support term limits, according to a 2018 Franklin & Marshall poll. 

More:Newcomer Mike Jones keeps Pennsylvania's 93rd House District red

Dead on arrival? Since the 1970s, when the issue was raised as legislators first began working full time, members of both parties have mostly rejected legislation establishing term limits, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall.

The reasons not to join the 15 other states that impose limits vary.

Some suggest term limits would hinder voters' choices in elections; others say they would favor bureaucracy, with lobbyists and staff having more institutional knowledge than the term-limited legislators themselves. 

Another is that well-paid lawmakers with good benefits might not want to leave after 12 years, Madonna added.

The political history leads many to believe Jones' proposal is dead on arrival.

But Madonna said he isn't surprised someone who campaigned on term limits is introducing such a measure.

"He's trying to fulfill that (campaign) promise," Madonna said. "I think anybody has to realize that it's going to go nowhere, but that doesn't mean if they made a pledge to the electorate in the course of the campaign, they wouldn't keep that pledge."

Both Madonna and House Democratic Caucus spokesman Bill Patton said the bill will most likely face the same fate as those that came before it and fail to gain momentum among lawmakers of either party.

On the other hand, House Republican Caucus spokesman Mike Straub said it's too early to tell, as things may be different as Republicans introduced the bill and there's new GOP leadership and members in the House. 

If passed, legislators who serve 12 consecutive years would still be able to run again if they took a term off. Many don't make it to that point, as 68 percent have been in office fewer than 10 years, and 48 percent have been in office fewer  than six years, according to data provided by Patton.

But there are outliers.

The longest-serving member is Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks County, who has served for 42 years. Here in York County, Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, has served the longest with 26 years and ties for fifth in terms of seniority in the Legislature.

Saylor didn't respond to multiple phone calls for comment.

Response to criticism: Jones said a lack of term limits isn't stopping state-level bureaucracy now, and if anything limits would help attract new politicians to challenge the status quo.

He also said it wouldn't limit voters' choice, as they will be the ones who ultimately decide whether or not to impose term limits.

With the 12-year limit, Jones said, the concerns about a lack of institutional knowledge among senior lawmakers also are addressed.

Regardless of the fate of the bill, the effort is still worth it, said Micah Sims, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonprofit lobbying organization pushing for government efficiency.

"Oftentimes change isn't over night," Sims said. "Sometimes you have to plant the seed and continue to work. Good reform is always about raising the issue."

Here are the longest-serving legislators in Pennsylvania:

  1. 42 years:  Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, D-Berks County
  2. 36 years: Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny County; Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton County
  3. 33 years: Rep. James R. Roebuck, Jr, D-Philadelphia County
  4. 28 years: Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny County; Rep. P. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster County
  5. 26 years: Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York County; Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County; Rep. Tim Hennessey , R-Chester County
  6. 24 years: Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County; Rep. Rosita C. Youngblood, D-Philadelphia County; Rep. Joseph A. Petrarca, D-Westmoreland County; Rep. Harry A. Readshaw, D-Allegheny County; Rep. Christopher Sainato, D-Lawrence County; Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson, R-Bucks County; Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, D-Philadelphia County; Rep. Christine M. Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia County.
  7. 22 years: Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware County; Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County; Sen. Jay Costa, Jr., D-Allegheny County.
  8. 20 years: Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County; Rep. Dan B. Frankel, D-Allegheny County; Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton County; Sen. Jake Corman, R-Jefferson County; Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County; Sen. Anthony H. Williams, D-Philadelphia County
  9. 18 years:  Rep. Tina Pickett, R-Bradford County; Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia; Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati, III, R-Jefferson County; Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County
  10. 16 years: Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-York County; Rep. Martin T. Causer, R-McKean County; Rep. David S. Hickernell, R-Lancaster County; Rep. Neal Goodman, D-Schuylkill County; Jake Wheatley, Jr., D-Allegheny County

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.