Oklahoma’s distinct populist identity served as a role model in the past when we led the way in the early Nineties by passing term limits for our state legislators. As is so often the case when a needed reform is implemented, a loophole was left open. Secondary statewide elected officials, from attorney general to state superintendent of public instruction, currently have no limit on the amount of times they may run. This loophole needs to be closed for a number of reasons.
First, as conservative commentator George Will recently pointed out in his column for Real Clear Politics, only the most arrogant of politicians can believe they are indispensable. A person who runs for the same office four, five, six times is declaring that neither a member of their own party nor a member of another is up to the job. This then leads to a bunker mentality that isolates the official from the public he or she is meant to serve.
Second, new solutions and fresh thinking are shut out when the same person monopolizes an office over the span of years, even decades. Rotation, especially in executive offices, is as necessary as rotating crops ” you don’t want to wear out the soil of ideas. Even worse is when the same two people continuously face each other, rehashing the same arguments over and over.
Next, officials need to focus on accomplishments rather than merely getting re-elected. The knowledge that eight or 12 years was all you had to make your mark would provide great incentive to work as hard as possible to deliver on the mandate granted by the people. After all, the job is more important than the person holding it.
Finally, state legislators are put at a marked disadvantage when the executives they are meant to check have the distinct advantage of near permanence. If anything, executives are more in need of term limits as they (other than the Corporation Commissioners) govern alone over their departments rather than in concert with dozens or even a hundred others as do legislators.
The Oklahoma electorate is by no means blind to this issue. In July of last year, Pulse Opinion Research found that 77 percent of likely Oklahoma voters backed a referendum placing term limits on secondary statewide officials. In December, the Tulsa World and KOTV found 73 percent support. Either way, an overwhelming majority of Oklahoma voters wants this reform. The opposition mainly comes from current politicians and their retainers who obviously oppose anything designed to curtail their power.
According to Brian Downs, executive director of Oklahomans for Responsible Government, an organization based in the metro area, OFRG is set to spearhead another effort to get a vote on this vital issue on the ballot. Last year, they came up just short due to some unreliable legislators. I applaud their efforts and wish them the best, but we should not have to wait for accountability.
Therefore, I call on Oklahoma politicians, especially my fellow Republicans, to live up to the electorate’s principles and take limits upon themselves. Active or retired, current or future, office seekers ought to promise to serve no more than two, at most three, terms in any one office “¦ and keep your promise.
Reese is an attorney who lives in Oklahoma City with his wife and sons.