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Altering Houston term limits

This ought to stir things up a bit.

The Texas House today is expected to pass a bill that could lead to the extension of Houston’s term limits.

The bill, authored by state reps. Garnet Coleman and Carol Alvarado, would call for an election, allowing voters to decide whether elected officials like the mayor, City Council members and controller would be able to stay in office longer.

It passed, by a 131-8 vote. No member of the Harris County delegation voted against it, though three members (Bill Callegari, Scott Hochberg, and Debbie Riddle) were absent.

Those officials now can only serve a maximum of three, two-year terms. Alvarado, for example, had to leave the City Council after six years, and Mayor Bill White is being forced from office this year. The bill, which still must pass the Texas Senate, would extend that to six, two-year terms or three, four-year terms.

Coleman, who has tried to get this passed before, said the limits give too much influence to staff members and to lobbyists because they stay while politicians rotate in and out of office. Neither lobbyists nor staff members are accountable to the public, he said.

Alvarado wrote an op-ed advocating the modification of Houston’s term limits ordinance on her last day in City Council. I discussed the issue with her when I interviewed her for the HD145 primary last year. It’s no surprise she’s on board with this.

The text of the bill, simply put, says that the Mayor and Council would choose between three four-year terms and six two-year terms as the new term limit, then put a measure on the ballot for that new limit in November of 2010. If it passes, that’s what we get, and if not, we keep what we already have. I’d prefer the latter, but either is better than the silly system we have now. Given how different the city and its electorate is now from how it was in 1991, when term limits was basically a Republican-pushed fad, I’d make either of them a favorite to succeed. For now, it’s up to the Senate to give us the chance to make it happen. Statements from Rep. Coleman and Rep. Alvarado about the passage of HB3006 are beneath the fold.

State Representative Garnet F. Coleman (D-Houston) applauds the House for passing House Bill 3006, which will give Houston voters the choice to make their city government more effective and better suited to meet their needs. HB 3006 would let Houstonians decide if they wish to expand term limits in Houston from the current three two-year terms, to either six two-year terms or three four-year terms, through a proposition on the November 2010 ballot.

“Existing term limits keep Houston City Council Members from gaining necessary legislative experience,” said Representative Coleman. “Short term limits force out members almost as soon as they learn the legislative process, and deter qualified candidates from seeking office.”

HB 3006 will not extend the terms of city officials currently in office, and will actually help diminish the power of incumbency.

“Incumbents rarely face serious challenges because most candidates would rather wait for a seat to open,” said Representative Coleman.

Current term limits favor executive power over legislative power. HB 3006 will give Houston voters the opportunity to equalize that power.

“Houston voters know which set of policies best suit their needs,” said Representative Coleman. “This legislation simply gives these voters options.”

Statement by Representative Carol Alvarado on HB 3006

“House Bill 3006 can help prevent the constant loss of institutional knowledge at the City of Houston by providing voters a new option on City Council term limits. I have always believed that the current term limits hurt Houston’s neighborhoods and communities by prohibiting proven leaders from serving on the council for more than six years. I want to thank Representative Garnet Coleman for his work on this important matter.”

Representative Alvarado signed on as a joint author to HB 3006, which would call an election in November 2010 to give the voters of Houston an opportunity to extend the City Council’s term limits to a total of 12 years. HB 3006 was approved in the House on Monday, May 4th and will now be considered by the Senate.

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