Legislators, and perhaps voters, will have a chance to redefine conceptually what terms limits mean under a bill amending the Constitution to impose such limits on sheriffs and tax assessors.
HB 199 by Democrat state Rep. Mandie Landry would give a parish’s top law enforcement officer and tax collector up to three consecutive terms in office, and the same for assessors in her HB 288. As a rationale for limiting sheriffs, she complains that “You have a lot of power over money, over law enforcement, over all politics … centered in one person. And to know there is no end in sight really, really puts a lot of power in those two hands.” And, she may just be getting started, expressing a desire to extend limits to all elected offices.
Let’s slow down and think about this. At present, the constitution imposes term limits on only four kinds of officers: the governor, legislators, members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and public service commissioners. A sort of limit exists on judges in that they can’t run for this kind of office past the age of 70, but that doesn’t stem from the argument that staying in power too long can have detrimental policy effects but that advanced age may impair adjudicatory skills.
However, these limits don’t extend to other judicial officials – justices of the peace, specialized courts, or constables – conceived as local officeholders. The document doesn’t provide for limitation on any local office defined by it, which on the executive side would include sheriffs, clerks of court, assessors, and coroners.
From these observations, the conceptual application of limits, even if done in piecemeal fashion over the years (governor in the original 1974 document, legislators two decades later, PSC and BESE members about a decade after) becomes clearer. All have considerable power over the gathering and utilization of the financial fortunes of the citizenry, through the power to raise and spend money by the governor and legislature through their law-making powers, and the ability to set utility rates for the PSC through its regulatory power. BESE has the special constitutional ability to demand its funding through its own formula, with legislative assent. Further, with the exception of the governor, all serve as part-time officials.
Using by way of example sheriffs, applying limits to them would break the mold. Most obviously, it is a local office. More specifically, it and the other three local offices created in the Constitution (and applying everywhere except in Orleans Parish, which used to differ considerably but now only slightly in offices) according to the document’s definition of their powers aren’t really seen in policy-making terms, but as executory offices performing some tasks ideally defined apolitically: law enforcement and tax collection, overseeing court functions, assessing property, and investigating causes of death. And, all are full-time offices.
Of course, all and perhaps most particularly the sheriff have policy-making power to varying degrees, although often this comes by law and not from the Constitution, such as in those parishes where sheriffs have control of jails and specially where they can leverage that power to contract out to private providers. That also serves as an example of fiscal policy-making.
However, most crucially, sheriffs have no control over taxation policy and not much influence over revenues. The largest such department in the state in a typically configured constellation of local governments (that is, not consolidated in some way nor with an inordinate amount of patrol performed because of the relatively high proportion of residents not living in a municipality, as in Jefferson) is Caddo, where over half of revenues comes from taxation decided directly by voters and only about a quarter comes from its own means.
That situation also typifies other constitutional local offices as well as other statewide offices. All the other state constitutional officers depend upon statute by which to gather their revenues, and some have the bulk of their finances taken care of from a general fund appropriation. In other words, like sheriffs with voter permission and whatever powers the Legislature or local governments vest in them, other centers of power in the business of direct governance determine from where these local elected officials may raise money, if not determine their budgets.
So, it would make sense if the institutions involved in establishing that power and distributing the funds, such as the Legislature and governor or local municipal plenary bodies and mayors, have term limits. The theory is too much time in office threatens making minds not right that encourages catering more to special interests rather than to the people’s interests when they exercise their fiscal powers. But for those institutions that don’t have these powers, either granted by the other institutions or the people, establishing term limits on these would depart from present practice, whether intentionally designed that way. The question then becomes with offices where the threat of mischief inherently is reduced whether the benefits of curbing that lesser potential amount of evil outweighs the loss of democratic autonomy through attenuating voters’ choices.