Senate President Karen Spilka, or anyone who eventually succeeds her, could remain at the helm of the Senate indefinitely under a proposal that one of her top lieutenants put forward after discussing the idea with her.
Sen. Michael Rodrigues, whom Spilka has repeatedly tapped to serve in the powerful position of Ways and Means Committee chair, filed an amendment to the rules package that senators will debate Thursday to eliminate the decades-old rule that imposes an eight-year term limit on the Senate presidency. In a statement provided by his office, Rodrigues said that he filed the amendment following "careful consideration" and after talking about the idea with Spilka.
"I brought this forth after discussions with democratic colleagues, and the Senate President, on the prospective negative restrictions the term limit provision places on the Senate. The Governor's office has no such limitation, the House removed term limits for the Speaker's office almost 10 years ago, and both minority leaders in the House and Senate are not subject to any limit on their term in office," the Westport Democrat said. He added, "With the Commonwealth now finally emerging from three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, stability and continuity are paramount for the passage of pressing and long-overdue legislation stalled by three years of uncertainty."
The amendment comes at a time when power is consolidated in the so-called Big Three on Beacon Hill: the governor and the leaders of the House and Senate, who make the calls on which proposals surface, or die.
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Rodrigues' amendment is simple, it would merely strike Rule 11B from the rules package. Senate Rule 11B reads: "No member of the Senate shall hold, for more than 8 consecutive years, the office of President of the Senate."
Under the rule as it stands now, Spilka would be required to step down as president in July 2026, just days before the end of formal business for the 194th General Court. She was first elected president of the Senate on July 26, 2018.
A Spilka spokeswoman did not respond Tuesday to a News Service request for comment. Rodrigues' office said he was not available to discuss his amendment with the News Service.
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The Senate is expected to consider the amendment during a formal session Thursday, along with 28 other amendments filed to leadership's rules package. And unless Spilka makes leadership and committee assignments when Senate Democrats caucus Wednesday, any vote on the proposal to free Spilka from the presidency's term limit would come before the president hands out jobs and titles that come with lucrative pay stipends.
As chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Rodrigues holds the job that has been a launching pad for recent Senate presidents. Spilka was Ways and Means chair before securing the votes to become president. Though he was majority leader just before he ascended to the presidency, Stanley Rosenberg had also served as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
And Therese Murray -- who gave up the president's gavel and did not seek re-election when she was on the verge of bumping up against the eight-year term limit -- had been Ways and Means chair just before she was chosen as the first woman to lead the Senate as president.
The Senate first adopted a term limit for the president during debate on the chamber's rules in 1993, but the eight-year limit did not take effect until the start of the next legislative session on Jan. 4, 1995, according to the Senate clerk's office.
Originally, the rule imposed the same eight-year limit on other leadership positions like majority leader, assistant majority leader and minority leader. But the rule was pared back to apply to just the Senate president in 2001. It has not been changed since.
For most of the last 20-plus years, Beacon Hill debate around term limits has been focused almost entirely on the House of Representatives, where a cap on a speaker's tenure has been implemented and repealed multiple times.
With Speaker Thomas Finneran serving at the time, the House struck down term limits for speakers in 2001 on a 112-39 vote -- with Rodrigues voting with the majority to eliminate the limit.
In 2003, Rep. Ruth Balser offered an unsuccessful amendment during a rules debate that would have placed a cap on years a speaker could serve. Rodrigues and Spilka, both representatives at the time, both voted to reject Balser's amendment.
Term limits for the speaker were reinstated in 2009 after former Speaker Sal DiMasi left abruptly and Robert DeLeo succeeded him. Representatives were not forced to vote directly on term limits in 2009 as the limit was rolled into a larger rules package that focused on areas like ethics, process, and voting reform.
Spilka had moved on to the Senate by then, but Rodrigues voted in favor of the 2009 package that included the reinstatement of term limits on the speaker. In 2015, as DeLeo approached lame duck status, the House voted again to abolish term limits for the speaker and efforts to reinstate the limit have been beaten back in years since.