State House lawmakers are likely to vote Thursday on a proposal to limit the tenure of House and Senate leaders.
Current law doesn’t say how many years a person can serve as House speaker or Senate president pro tempore. Until the late 1970s, most speakers and pro tems served only one term. The pro tem position didn’t even hold much power until 1989, when the arrival of a Republican Senate President, Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, prompted the Democratic majority at the time to strip away most of that position’s power and give it to then-Pro Tem Henson Barnes.
Barnes’s successor in 1993, Marc Basnight, led the Senate for nine terms – nearly 18 years – a tenure unmatched in state history. Most lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, now agree that shouldn’t happen again.
House Bill 61, approved this morning by House Judiciary A, would amend the state constitution to limit chamber leaders to two two-year terms in the corner office. It wouldn’t limit the number of terms they could serve as legislators, just the length of time they could lead a chamber.
In committee today, some wondered whether chamber leaders should be allowed to serve two terms, step away from the office and then come back. That’s how the governor’s term limit works. But Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, argued against it: “There are a lot of capable people here.”
The measure is supported by both Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, who sent his chief of staff Charles Thomas to speak at the hearing on his behalf. But Tillis doesn’t think it needs to be a constitutional amendment.
“There are a number of bills that are coming out as constitutional amendments,” Tillis said this afternoon. “We’re going to have a serious look at how many we really have the capacity to put forward.”
Tills said he thinks a simple law would do the job, because future speakers aren’t likely to try to change it. “I don’t think it’s one of those where, if it were just in the statute, it would be at risk of being reversed.”
He says the bill could change in other ways, too, before it’s finalized.
“Over in the Senate, they’d talked about maybe going to three consecutive terms. I don’t have a problem with that,” Tillis said. “But I do want something on the books.”