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2010 Houston term limits survey

Last month, I posted several links with information and research relating to term limits, including the results of a 2004 City of Houston survey about them and the proposed wording for an updated survey. That updated survey has been done, and the results were emailed to me this morning by Rice University’s Dr. Robert Stein. You can see a presentation of the results here, with the text of the questions and crosstab data here. Some highlights:

– Support for term limits is up overall, from 54.5% in 2004 to 59.7% this year. Moreover, intensity for it is up as well. Both surveys measured support on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 = “strongly support”, 4 = “neutral”, and 7 = “strongly oppose”. In 2004, 24.0% chose 1, while 30.4% chose 2 or 3 (numbers may not sum exactly due to rounding). In 2010, it was 44.4% choosing 1, with 15.3% choosing 2 or 3. By the same token, more people were neutral in 2004 (22.4%) than in 2010 (19.2%), but more people were strongly opposed in 2010 (11.0%) than in 2004 (6.8%). Finally, though you can’t see it in the graph, 3% of respondents answered “don’t know” in 2010, compared to 4.2% in 2004.

– As in 2004, a slight majority of respondents initially said they would prefer to keep the current term limits we have than make any changes. 51% said keep them as is, while 24% said they preferred two four-year terms. In 2004, 52% said stand pat, while 19% wanted two fours.

– In each survey, respondents were then asked their opinion about various pro- and anti-term limits arguments, and also about letting someone who had finished his or her allotted number of terms to run again after sitting out for a cycle or two. Both sets of arguments had some support for them in each year, while nobody really like the idea about letting someone run again after sitting it out for two or four years.

– After the questions about the pros and cons of term limits, which I thought were presented fairly and not in a manner designed to push anyone one way or another, people were asked again if they wanted to keep the status quo or change it. In 2004, 42.4% of respondents said they would vote for a charter change that modified the term limits law to allow for two four-year terms, with 44.6% saying they’d vote against it. In 2010, 39% said they wanted to keep things as they are, while 36% said they wanted two fours. The main difference here is that in 2004, no other option was presented; the remaining respondents were “not sure”. In 2010, 7% went for four two-year terms, with 18% expressing a preference for an unspecified “other” choice.

– What that suggests to me is that support for the current system may be a little softer than the initial number suggest. A straight-up choice between the status quo and two four-year terms would make for a competitive election. As you know, I’m not a fan of term limits, and my answer throughout this survey would have been in favor of getting rid of them – I’d have been in the 18% “other” camp. But if my only options were what we’ve got and two fours, I’d vote for the latter. The question as always in these situations is who does the pushing for each choice. We know there will be organized opposition to any change, though it’s not clear to me how much money they’ll be able to raise. It’s not clear to me there will be any organization in favor of a two fours choice. The term limits commission was Bill White’s baby, and he has his hands full with other pursuits right now. San Antonio successfully modified its term limits law because its popular Mayor Phil Hardberger actively campaigned for it. I have no idea if Mayor Parker would get involved in this – my inclination is to say no, she’ll stay out of it – and if that’s the case, who would lead the charge? There’s no obvious figurehead for it, and without that, I would expect a referendum to fail. Maybe if a lot of money is raised for it, a recognizable spokesperson wouldn’t be needed. Even so, it’s not clear who’d be doing the fundraising.

So that’s where we stand. We still need to get the Term Limits Commission’s official report and recommendations, and once we do we’ll have a better idea of how this may shake out. My guess is there will be a referendum, with changing to a two four-year term system being the alternative. What do you think?

UPDATE: Campos reports from the Term Limits Commission meeting last night:

The commission adopted motions to change the length of terms thus eliminating the two-year term. They will look at the three or four-year term option. They voted to consider staggering terms of council members. In my opinion, staggering terms work only under a four-year term system. They also voted to do away with the “lifetime ban”, in other words after a member serves the maximum allowed, he/she can sit out a term before running again, the so-called opt in – opt out provision.

The goal of the Commission is to adopt a more concrete city charter change recommendation early next month then forward to the Houston City Council by June 30. The Mayor and City Council will then decide in July or early August if they want to put it on this November’s ballot.

So there you have it.

UPDATE: I received the following email from Dr. Stein:

In your post today you wrote:

while nobody really like the idea about letting someone run again after sitting it out for two or four years.

This is not quite correct. Question 7 asked if the respondent would support allowing term limited office holders to run again for the same office, after they have sat out one term. Those who answered “no” “don’t know’ or ‘refused’ to this question were asked Question 7A, “what if the former office-holder had to sit out two terms before running again, would you then favor this change…” You have to add the respondents who said yes to question 7 and 7A to get the total number of respondents who would support allowing term limited officeholders to sit out two terms before running again. This figure is 294 or 58.6% of our sample.

It is is not obvious from the survey and report posted on the website that this is how you calculate the percent of respondents who supported allowing term limited officeholders to run after sitting out two terms. {note: question 7 skips respondent to question 8 if they answered ‘yes to Question 7a . Those answering ‘no’ , ‘not sure’ or ‘refused’ are asked 7a.}

We are preparing additional analysis of these responses and will post them and send them along shortly.

Sorry for causing this confusion.

My apologies as well for the confusion, and my thanks to Dr. Stein for the clarification.

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