The Senate floor saw its first real fight of the 83rd session Tuesday over a bill by Kevin Eltife, a Republican from Tyler. The bill, Senate Joint Resolution 13, would ask Texans to consider an amendment to the state constitution that would institute term limits for statewide elected officials—no future governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, land commissioner, agricultural commissioner or railroad commissioner could serve more than two consecutive terms.
The bill passed the Senate, but not before some sharp words were exchanged.
Leading the charge was Craig Estes, a Republican from Wichita Falls, who offered two amendments to Eltife’s bill. The first would extend term limits to the judiciary, the second to the legislature. Estes explained that he objected to Eltife’s bill because it treats the separate branches of state government differently; if anyone was going to have term limits, Estes argued, everyone should.
His colleagues were apparently taken aback by this. In introducing the bill, Eltife had explained that although he believed in term limits for the legislature, he had not included such limits in the bill because he felt doing so would “simply kill the legislation”; legislators, in other words, aren’t likely to term-limit themselves. As for the judges, Eltife had started out by saying that he was “less than certain” about the value of term limits for them.
Estes, as it turned out, was reasoning similarly. That became clear when John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, questioned why Estes wanted to impose term limits on the judiciary. “Can’t you draw a distinction in the executive branch versus the judiciary?” asked Whitmire, who went on to point out that the executive branch has powers of appointment that the judiciary lacks.
“The reason I’m offering this amendment is because Sen. Eltife said that if any amendments come on, he will kill the bill,” Estes responded.
“Oh, so you’re really just trying to kill the Eltife bill?” Whitmire shot back.
“Unapologetically. Unapologetically,” Estes replied.
The jig was thereby up. Still, several senators offered arguments against the merits.
Joan Huffman, a Republican from Houston, who served as an elected judge for six years, said that she felt a judge’s time on the bench bettered his or her judgment. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat from Houston, joked that he would be willing to support term limits for legislators only if Estes was willing to put a “pilot program” of the bill in Estes’ own district.
Eventually Dan Patrick, a Republican from Houston, spoke up to say that he felt Estes was handling the issue disrespectfully. “Eltife has brought forth a serious issue, and I think you’re undermining that,” Patrick said to Estes.
After several exchanges of this type, the Senate seemed to decide that rather than killing the bill, as Estes suggested, they could just kill the amendments, and proceed without further distraction. Eltife suggested that the first amendment, the one that would have applied to the judiciary, be discarded as not germane to the bill. After fifteen minutes of conversation with several senators crowded around his desk the lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, agreed. Estes, thwarted, pulled the second amendment before it could be debated.
Eltife’s unamended bill passed the Senate 28-3. If it passes the House, voters will have a chance to weigh in on the proposed constitutional amendment in November.