Term Limits 01

Three-fourths of Utah voters like the idea of term limits for the governor and 104 part-time state legislators, a new UtahPolicy.com/Y2 Analytics survey shows.

That is excellent news for the United Utah Party, which announced in July that they will try to get a 12-year term limit citizen initiative petition approved to the 2020 general election ballot.

Now the challenge for the UUP is to get more than 115,000 voter signatures on their petitions, with at least 10 percent of the population in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.

If they can make the ballot, the new survey shows their effort should pass easily.

Utah is one of the few states in the nation which do not have term limits for its major state offices, although some local cities and towns do have term limit ordinances.

Said Kelly Patterson of Y2: “Most individuals support term limits because of cynicism toward politics.

“Cynicism involves such attitudes as how much of the time people can trust politicians to do the right things and whether or not people perceive politics to be dominated by a few interest groups.

“There are other factors that obviously go into explaining support for term limits, but the research in the 1990s on this topic pointed to cynicism as a stable predictor,” said Patterson, a BYU political science professor.

But cynicism can go both ways: The Utah Legislature, back in 1992, was the first state legislature to pass, on its own, a term limits law that applied to them.

Back then Republican Party leaders decided that GOP lawmakers should pass such a 12-year term limit bill, with the current lawmakers grandfathered in, because then-U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch was running for re-election to what would be his fourth, six-year term.

And Merrill Cook, a gadfly candidate who later would win a U.S. House seat as a Republican, was an independent candidate for governor, and he was trying to get on the ballot a citizen initiative term limit.

Fearing that Utah voters would kick Hatch out of office if he was on the same ballot as a popular term limit initiative, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a term limit bill, saying it wouldn’t apply to any incumbent for 12 years.

Hatch won re-election easily; with Cook’s initiative failing at the polls.

But then lawmakers were looking at a 12-year term limit law for themselves.

In what may be considered one of the most cynical acts by both Democratic and Republican legislators, after only eight years the 1992 term limit law, set to take effect in four years, was repealed by legislators in 2003.

In arguing against term limits, lawmakers then pointed to a staff-created study that showed significant natural turnover in both the Utah House and Senate – most lawmakers don’t serve 12 years.

But that belies the fact that more than 90 percent of legislators leave office via retirement or death – the incumbency (aided by gerrymandering) is that strong.

So, Utah has no term limit law currently. And whenever such a bill has been introduced since, it has never been approved.

The new poll shows:

-- 75 percent think a term limit law is a “good idea.”

-- Only 7 percent think it is a “bad idea.”

That is an overwhelming number in favor of term limits.

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The survey was conducted from July 31 to August 6, 2019, among 1,017 registered Utah voters, with a margin of error +/- 3.1%. You can read more about the methodology used in the poll here, and our online survey panel here.

Worse for Utah’s Republican Legislature and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, those who said they are “strong Republicans” and “strong conservatives” favor term limits – 73 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

Democrats like term limits.

Independents like term limits.

Men, women, young, old – every demographic group likes term limits, the poll shows.

While it may be smart for the current batch of legislators and governor to pass term limits themselves in the 2020 Legislature (they could, at least, grandfather themselves in, as they did in 1992), they are unlikely to do so.

Why?

Because the 2003 Legislature (and governor) showed that when it comes to term limits, the Utah Legislature can’t be trusted to keep that promise, even if they pass a term limit law on their own.

No Utah governor has served more than 12 years in office (three full terms).

While rare, a handful of legislators have served more than 30 years.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, has served 39 years, first in the House, since 1985 in the Senate.