Mass. Senate lifts 8-year limit on president’s term

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, stands in the Senate Chamber at the Massachusetts Statehouse, on Jan. 2, 2019, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, stands in the Senate Chamber at the Massachusetts Statehouse, on Jan. 2, 2019, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Senators had one eye on the 2023-2024 lawmaking session and another eye beyond this two-year term during a legislative rules debate Thursday, where they voted to lift a term limit on the Senate president and shot down proposed guidelines governing when lawmakers can cast votes remotely.

Deepening a Beacon Hill dynamic where power is centralized, all three members of Beacon Hill's "Big Three" can now retain their powerful posts as long as they want, assuming they win reelection to those jobs from voters and, in the case of House speaker and Senate president, their peers.

The Senate voted 32-6 to scrap an eight-year term limit on the position of Senate president, aligning their chamber with the House, whose speaker is no longer subject to a cap on years wielding the gavel. The leadership limits had been viewed as good governance reforms when they were adopted.

All three Senate Republicans — Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, Sen. Patrick O'Connor of Weymouth and Sen. Ryan Fattman of Sutton — voted to keep the term limit in place, as did Democrat Sens. John Keenan of Quincy, Becca Rausch of Needham and Walter Timilty of Milton.

Not a single senator rose to speak on the Senate floor in opposition to eliminating the term limit reform, which was first adopted nearly 30 years ago, though several explained their votes to reporters afterward.

Rausch said outside the chamber that she views term limits as "a really important part of small-d democracy."

"They serve to help advance new visions, new approaches," Rausch said.

The vote to lift term limits comes before Spilka announces committee assignments for the 2023-2024 term, decisions that will give substantial responsibility as well as lucrative stipends to certain lawmakers.

Both Rausch and Keenan said they do not expect to face consequences for breaking from the Democrat supermajority.

"I just think it's good to have that opportunity for change. We have it every two years when we elect the Senate president, but to know that every eight years, there'll be a change and people can move to different committees, develop different areas of expertise — I think that's quite valuable," Keenan said.

O'Connor said the term limit senators approved decades ago "hasn't steered us wrong."

"I think that having a fresh set of eyes every eight years is a welcome approach, and being able to do that gives another person the opportunity to take a perspective that their predecessor might not have taken," O'Connor said.

"You always run the risk of centralized power given the fact that there's nothing in place that leads toward the transition of that power," he added.

Sen. Liz Miranda, a Boston Democrat, did not cast a vote on the amendment after announcing Wednesday she had tested positive for COVID-19 and planned to work remotely. After the Senate adopted its rules later in the day, Miranda was able to start casting her votes remotely under the new guidelines.

The amendment repealing the term limit came from Sen. Michael Rodrigues, a top Spilka deputy whom she has repeatedly appointed to the key post of Senate Ways and Means Committee chair.

Rodrigues was the only senator to speak about the issue on the Senate floor. He argued that the Senate president's status as the lone legislative leader with a term limit puts the chamber at a disadvantage in negotiations with the House and executive branch.

"The Senate is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to legislating and advancing our members' priorities with the governor's office and the House when any Senate leader gets anywhere close to that deadline," Rodrigues told his colleagues. "When our Senate president sits at a negotiating table with the other leaders and with that date approaching, surely, that known deadline could be a negative factor in the Senate's hands."

"We currently have a Senate president who empowers and engages with all members in an open and transparent manner. Why should we continue to have restrictions that only leave the Senate president as an outlier in respect to our counterparts, who have no such restrictions?" he later added.

While she has not said how long she intends to lead the Senate, the vote ensures that Spilka will not be automatically pushed out of the role on July 26, 2026 — eight years after she took over following a period of upheaval — nor spend the 2025-2026 lawmaking session, if she is still president, as an obvious lame duck.

Rodrigues said that July 26, 2026 deadline, which would fall five days before the July 31 end to major lawmaking for the two-year session, could imperil key priorities.

"Productive dialogue and collaboration would cease long before that date as the focus for months preceding would solely be on leadership succession. Believe me, I've been in several leadership fights in both the House and the Senate, and I can tell you, they're not pretty," Rodrigues said.

Every two years, both the House speaker and Senate president must win reelection from voters to continue representing their districts, then secure approval from their colleagues to stay in the top posts — steps they often cruise through with little difficulty. A returning speaker has not lost their initial January leadership election since Speaker Thomas McGee failed to again win the speakership in 1985, and returning Senate presidents have consistently won back the gavel every other January since the Senate last flipped to majority-Democrat around 64 years ago.

Spilka has not said if she plans to seek reelection in 2024 or pursue another term as Senate president. The Ashland Democrat largely kept out of the chamber during Thursday's debate, and a spokesperson declined to make her available to answer questions from reporters.

"The integrity of the Senate has always been my top priority as Senate President, and it is my honor to lead this body. The adoption of this amendment means that the Senate will be on equal footing with all the other branches of our government," Spilka said in a statement. "I am grateful to my colleagues for recognizing the importance of this initiative."

Thursday's vote drew criticism from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which has advocated for lawmakers in both branches to open up their proceedings to more public scrutiny.

"By eliminating the term limit protection, the senate is allowing Senator Karen Spilka to remain Senate President for life. This type of absolute power will lead to corruption in the Massachusetts legislature, it's just a matter of time," said MassFiscal spokesperson Paul Craney.

The Senate adopted the term limit in a 1993 package proposed by a committee that included Sens. Mark Montigny and Marc Pacheco, who voted to remove the term limit Thursday. The eight-year cap has applied to presidents since 1995, and for about six years the rule imposed similar limits on other leadership positions including majority leader and minority leader, until senators scaled it back in 2001 to apply only to the president.

During the two-plus decades since then, the House of Representatives has veered between rules. The House eliminated term limits for speakers in 2001, reinstated the cap in 2009, and then lifted it in 2015 when then-Speaker Robert DeLeo was approaching lame-duck status.

In 2003, Rep. Ruth Balser proposed an unsuccessful rules amendment that would have reintroduced a term limit for speaker. Rodrigues and Spilka, who were both state representatives at the time, voted against the term limit, as did Timilty, who voted Thursday in favor of keeping the limit for Senate presidents. (Timilty also voted in 2015 to keep a House speaker term limit.)

Democrat Sens. Jamie Eldridge of Acton, Barry Finegold of Andover and Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, who all voted in favor of the Rodrigues amendment on Thursday eliminating the Senate president's term limit, were also representatives in 2003 and supported the Balser amendment seeking a term limit for House speakers.

The Senate rules (S 17), which were approved Thursday 37-1, also give open-ended authorization to senators participating in sessions from outside the State House.

Senators will be allowed to deliver remarks, cast votes on roll calls, and be counted on procedural questions while participating from a location away from the Senate Chamber, and their virtual presence will count toward a quorum. Court officers will monitor electronic means of participation and ascertain and announce any votes from senators who are remote.

The rules also allow senators to authorize a presiding officer to announce their vote by submitting a letter to the clerk.

The State House News Service's Colin A. Young contributed reporting.



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