For all the criticism they get, being a good, effective state legislator isn’t an easy thing to do.
There’s a lot to the job, which essentially is broken into three parts — making laws, serving constituents and dealing with the politics.
To be effective at serving one’s constituents, legislators have to learn a lot about their constituents’ problems and then have to fi nd a way in the maze of state government to help solve those problems.
To be an effective lawmaker, legislators have to become steeped in the intricacies of state law. They have to learn, consider and evaluate all the potential impacts of hundreds of pieces of legislation each year, much of it in complicated areas like insurance, budgeting, education and social policy.
And they have to learn to play the political game, which is required if you’re going to get anything accomplished. It’s not as simple as just Democrats vs. Republicans. Even in the Senate, there’s an actual bloc of Democrats who often vote with Republicans. It’s upstate vs. downstate vs. western New York. It’s cities vs. towns and counties. It’s state vs. local government. It’s the executive branch vs. the legislative branch.
The point of all this is that the job requires a steep learning curve, and experience in all three areas is essential to a legislator doing a good job for his district and the state at large.
The problem is that the longer one serves, the more one becomes part of the big ugly political machine that is New York state government. After a while, many lawmakers start to forget who put them there and what their actual role is. They start to feel powerful. They start to take advantage and shortcuts. They start to feel entitled. They start to look out for themselves. They get arrogant.
Look at how powerful legislative leaders like Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos went down. Their greed and quest for power got the best of them, and they used their lengthy time in offi ce to learn how to manipulate people and the system for their own ends.
Very rarely does a rookie legislator get caught providing no-show jobs for his kids or exchanging legislation for income. You have to be in offi ce a long time and accumulate the power and independence to get away with it.
So if we want an effective legislator representing us, do we want to let them stay in offi ce a long time so they can build up the experience to do a good job? Or do we want to kick them out after a certain amount of time so they don’t become corrupt? How long in offi ce is enough and how long is too long?
There are no easy answers.
You can’t ask legislators themselves to decide. They’ve got too much stake in the game. You have to ask the people who are most directly affected by the actions of the Legislature.
You have to ask the people whether they want term limits and how long they should be.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested that lawmakers let their constituents decide. Imposing term limits on statewide offi ces and the Legislature would require amending the state constitution, which ultimately would be put before the voters in a statewide referendum.
It’s the only way to handle this issue.
Putting it on the ballot requires the question be approved by two successive state legislatures, which means they’d have to vote on it twice, once now and once after the next wave of legislative elections.
They should do it. Start the process this session. Put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and let the people make that decision.
Don’t do it for a pay raise. Don’t do it because the governor coerced you to do it. Do it because it’s best for your constituents.
And isn’t that why you ran for this job in the fi rst place? Well, isn’t it?