Guest Columns

DUNCAN: CHANGE VACANCY LAWS AND END TERM LIMITS

Here’s a novel idea: Let the voters choose

There has been quite a bit of discussion lately about the number of legislators in Colorado who are originally appointed to office by vacancy committees, then stay around to run for the office to which they were appointed, and then stay around for the next election. This puts anyone else who wants to run at a disadvantage. The result is that the members of the vacancy committees virtually choose the successors themselves.

I agree with those who believe this needs to change.

However, I see another issue that can and should be fixed at the same time.

I have railed in this newspaper for a long time — and to anyone who will listen — about term limits. I hope enough thoughtful Coloradans, after dealing with term limits for a while, agree with me that this is a very bad idea that does our state a disservice.

Here’s my review of the many reasons term limits are a folly.

First, term limits deprive the people of the service of good legislators and other state officials who are forced out. Specifically, they eliminate historical knowledge. It takes time — sometimes many years of service — to learn how things work.

Term limits greatly empower those in the Capitol whose terms are not limited.

Lobbyists and legislative staff have been there for years. They have learned the levers of power and how to manipulate them.

By the time new legislators have been around long enough to learn these things, we dump them in the street and hire new legislators, who then must go through the same learning process.

But the worst injustice in term limits is this. We don’t let our citizens vote for the person they most want in office.

Prior to term limits, Colorado voters regularly kept officers around for many years.

For example, former Rep. Jerry Kopel, who still writes wonderfully informative columns in this journal, served 22 years in the Legislature. Dick Lamm served three terms as governor, as did Roy Romer.

There are many more who served with distinction and strong public support for much longer than they would have been allowed to serve under term limits.

Assume we had term limits for members of Congress. In Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, we elected Pat Schroeder to Congress in 1972. We obviously liked the job she did for us, so we kept re-electing her for 12 terms. She had been our congresswoman for 24 years when she voluntarily retired from Congress at the end of 1996.

To take her place, we chose Diana DeGette in the Democratic primary and the general election in 1995. I guess we like the job she’s doing, too. She has so far served five terms, and there is little doubt she will be re-elected next year.

Who we elect to serve us in the 1st Congressional District is and should be our business. Nobody should impose term limits on us. Like Schroeder, DeGette has gained committee seniority and is a deputy whip in the House. She is a leader in several areas of legislation.

Let’s make a deal. I won’t try to tell you who to elect to Congress in your district, and you keep your nose out of mine.

Can’t we extend that principle to elected state officials in Colorado? So let’s kill two skunks at the same time.

Let’s change the law to provide that those who are appointed to state elected positions be ineligible to run for the same office in the next election. In other words, vacancy committee appointees would be “place holders.” This would put everyone who chooses to run for the office on the same level, and no one would have the unearned advantage of appointment.

Sounds good to me.

Turn Colorado state government back over to the voters.

There are all kinds of do-gooders who want to tell us what’s best for us politically. They are always dreaming up new ways to “improve” our political system. What they really want to do is accrue power themselves so they can more easily get their way in state government.

I say let’s keep the power in the hands of all the citizens. Let’s all choose to join a party or remain unaffiliated. Let anyone try to start a new party. Let them vote for any candidate they want to.

Let’s take the Legislature away from the lobbyists and permanent staff and give it back to the people through their elected officials — who could serve as long as we want them to.

Yeah. Let’s kill two skunks at the same time. Get rid of term limits, and quit letting vacancy committees appoint someone they want to run for office at the next election.

Let representative government in Colorado be just that once again.

Power to the people. What a novel idea.

Norman Duncan is a former — and now current — columnist for The Colorado Statesman. He is a former Democratic campaign operative and lobbyist, and he resides in Denver.