The Texas Senate approved a measure Tuesday that would allow voters to decide whether to limit statewide officeholders — including the governor — to two consecutive terms.
The 27-4 vote, marking the first time in years that a term limit bill has advanced past a legislative chamber at the state Capitol, covers only statewide officials in the executive branch and not lawmakers or judges.
Approval came after a lively and, at times, pointed debate that centered on whether the move would take away voters’ ability to elect whomever they want. The proposal had drawn support from most newer members of the Senate — including most tea party lawmakers.
Voting no were Sens. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls; Glenn Hegar, R-Katy; Bryan Birdwell, R-Granbury; and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, the author of Senate Joint Resolution 13, insisted that term limits for statewide officials would be good to “bring in fresh ideas and perspective to state government.” A former Tyler mayor who left that job because of term limits, Eltife said he wholeheartedly supports them.
If approved by voters, the limits on statewide officeholders would take effect next January.
Although some have suggested that the measure targets Gov. Rick Perry, the state’s longest-serving chief executive, with 13 years in office, Eltife said he was not aiming at any official in particular and seeks only to improve state government.
The change would encourage “more open seats and more competitive elections,” Eltife said.
Estes said he opposes term limits because they curtail the “ability of the people to elect whoever they want.”
“I have great concerns about where we’re trying to go here,” Estes said, offering two amendments — one to limit the terms of statewide judges and the other to limit the terms of Senate and House members.
The judicial limit was killed by a parliamentary point of order, and Estes withdrew the limit on lawmakers’ terms without a vote.
“I believe what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” Estes said. “”For us to single out one branch of government for term limits is unconscionable.”
Sens. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Joan Huffman, R-Houston, argued that the longer judges hold office, the more knowledgeable about the law they become. “I see the executive branch as different,” said Huffman, a former state district judge in Houston.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, challenged the assertion that limiting judges’ terms would improve government. He also challenged Estes’ admission at one point that his amendments were an attempt to keep the measure from passing.
Answering a key criticism of Estes and other critics, Eltife noted that the Legislature is not deciding the issue, but rather leaving it up to voters, should the resolution pass the House. It faces an uncertain future there.
The proposal would change the state Constitution to limit the terms of statewide elected officials, including the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioners. Eltife said the current terms of state officeholders would not count against the two-term limit.
However, the terms of those who win statewide office in November 2014 or later would be covered.