JUNEAU — A newly filed ballot measure would set term limits for lawmakers serving in the Alaska Legislature.
State legislators would be restricted to serving a maximum of 12 years consecutively in the state House or Senate, and they then would be required to take a six-year break before serving again. They would also be limited to serving for a lifetime maximum of 20 years as members of the Legislature.
Sixteen other states have term limits for state legislators, including in California, Florida and Ohio. Alaska governors are already limited by the state constitution to serving two four-year terms consecutively. There are no term limits in U.S. Congress.
The three main sponsors of the proposed ballot initiative all unsuccessfully ran as Republicans for the Alaska Legislature. Elijah Verhagen, a candidate for a Fairbanks Senate seat in the last election, said that he heard widespread support for term limits from across the political spectrum while knocking on doors.
Enacting term limits would help combat incumbents’ advantages with name recognition and in fundraising, he said, adding that “a lot of the people — the common people — are very frustrated.”
The ballot measure would apply time served for incumbent legislators. Four senators have served in the Legislature for 20 years or longer and would be ineligible to run again. A few other House and Senate members have served more than 12 years consecutively, or are set to cross that threshold in the next couple of years.
Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, first took office in 2007. He said by text message that he doesn’t support term limits because more experienced legislators take power away from lobbyists and bureaucrats.
“I think 12 years’ service is too long for some members who don’t take the job seriously or work at it,” he said. “And they should be unelected or just resign to allow someone else to do the job.”
Heath Smith, a sponsor of the ballot measure and a Republican former candidate for a Homer and Kodiak-based Senate seat, said term limits would help return Alaska to the grassroots principles of a citizen legislature. He said that a 67% pay raise for lawmakers, set to take effect next year, made it more attractive to serve longer.
“It becomes a career path for some, and I think that we want to discourage that,” he said. “And I think ultimately, it’s better for the process.”
The proposed measure was modeled off one approved by North Dakota voters last year, Verhagen said. Outside money flooded in to boost supporters’ efforts in North Dakota, and Verhagen said he has spoken to some groups from out of state that have indicated an interest in donating.
A similar constitutional amendment was introduced by members of the bipartisan House freshman caucus earlier in the year. But it has some key differences: Legislators could serve 12 years in the House or Senate, and that limit would then reset if they were elected to the other legislative chamber.
The amendment would not apply retroactively. Incumbent lawmakers would not have the time they have already served count toward their maximum of 24 years in the Legislature.
The constitutional amendment did not receive a legislative hearing this year, with supporters saying that there was little interest in the Senate.
Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, one of the measure’s lead sponsors, had not heard of the proposed ballot measure before Friday, but said he supported any discussion about term limits. He said that experience in the state Capitol was important, and that the constitutional amendment “better reflects that value” than the proposed ballot measure.
“As a new legislator who’s just completed his first session, I cannot exaggerate what an eye-opening experience it has been. I will never look at Alaska’s government the same way again,” he said by text message. “Other folks deserve the same opportunity. Term limits ensure more people have the chance to serve, and Alaska benefits from their fresh perspectives.”
Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds approval vote of both the House and Senate to then go before voters. Verhagen said without support in the Senate for the proposed amendment, a ballot measure would be the surest way to enact term limits in Alaska.
Proponents of the initiative want it on the ballot for the 2024 general election. Republican Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom will need to decide whether to certify the measure by Aug. 22, based on provisions set out in state statute.
If the initiative is certified, supporters would then have a full year to collect at least 26,705 signatures from registered voters — equating to 10% of the turnout from the 2022 general election.
Two other ballot measures have been filed for next year’s election. One initiative to repeal the state’s ranked-choice voting and open primary system was certified by Dahlstrom in January, and is in the signature-gathering phase.
The other initiative would reestablish campaign contribution limits after previous caps were struck down by a federal appeals court. The application was recently withdrawn due to a legal issue with one of the sections.
Kelly Howell, a spokesperson for the lieutenant governor’s office, said it would get an expedited review when the sponsors amended their petition and resubmitted it.