A top deputy to Massachusetts Senate President Karen E. Spilka is pushing a proposal to abolish limits on the chamber’s leader, a move that could end a decades-long cap on power on Beacon Hill and extend Spilka’s reign indefinitely.
State Senator Michael Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chief, filed an amendment to the Senate’s proposed rules package seeking to eliminate a provision that says no senator in the 40-member body can hold the president’s office “for more than 8 consecutive years.”
The move surprised several Senate members, who told The Boston Globe on Tuesday they were not part of internal discussions before it was filed. But others in the chamber quickly backed the idea, including the chairwoman of the chamber’s rules committee — a sign that one of the last measures restricting tenure could fall on Beacon Hill, where power is already heavily centralized in the hands of a small group of high-ranking leaders.
In a statement, Rodrigues said he discussed the proposal with Spilka, and other Senate Democrats. He also noted the governor doesn’t face any constitutional limit on how long he or she can serve — none of the state’s six statewide constitutional officers do — and that the House removed its own eight-year cap on the speaker in 2015.
“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 Westport Democrat said.
Good government advocates quickly opposed the measure, saying term limits have helped strengthen the democratic process.
“Without term limits, you run the risk of having leaders who must either be politically disposed, forced out under ethical clouds, or rarely, they might just lose interest and leave voluntarily. None of those scenarios are healthy,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Term limits are really important to ensure stable transitions of power.”
State Senator Michael O. Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said he supports term limits, and would need to hear arguments about why they should be removed before deciding how to vote. He warned that an indefinite tenure for the president could dampen willingness of younger lawmakers to “show some independence” in how they vote, should they diverge from leadership.
“If you’ve got someone in that position who you know is going to be there for a lifetime — or an extended period of time — you may have people who are afraid to vote their opinions, vote their districts, in fear of retribution or in fear of going against leadership,” Moore said.
Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, first ascended to the presidency in July 2018, putting her about 3½ years from hitting the current cap. A spokeswoman for Spilka, 70, did not return multiple requests for comment Tuesday.
Senators are scheduled to debate their rules package for the fledgling two-year session on Thursday.
The Senate adopted the eight-year limit on the Senate presidency in 1993 during William Bulger’s presidency, the longest in state history.
State lawmakers face no cap on how long they can hold their seats, but the state’s two legislative chambers have the authority to craft their own rules, including how long their leaders can serve.
The House abolished term limits on the speaker in 2001 only to reinstall the eight-year cap in 2009 after Salvatore F. DiMasi resigned amid state and federal investigations. (DiMasi was later convicted on federal corruption charges.)
The House then reversed course six years later after then-Speaker Robert DeLeo, who first pushed for the limits to be reinstated, said he had “evolved” on their necessity. The 2015 vote cleared the way for DeLeo to become the longest-serving House speaker in state history, holding the position for nearly 12 years before resigning in late 2020.
Spilka’s eight-year tenure would expire in late July 2026, meaning her current term would be her last full one as president.
“It’s fairly obvious that the Senate president wants to keep her job, for not just this term but for the term to come,” said one Democratic senator opposed to lifting term limits.
Spilka has yet to announce any assignments to her leadership team or the chamber’s committee chairs, positions of influence that also carry thousands of dollars in legislative stipends. Some senators said privately Tuesday that that uncertainty could impact how some choose to vote.
Senator Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat and head of the chamber’s temporary rules committee, said she supports removing the term limits. She said Spilka first brought the idea to her attention.
“It just doesn’t make sense to have one seat have a term limit” when the others don’t, Lovely said. “Why would we hold one seat out for a term limit? It’s not equitable.”
Senator Jacob Oliveira, a first-term Ludlow Democrat, said he personally is open to removing term limits, arguing they can be a drain on institutional knowledge.
“It really has an impact on the democratic process when you set an arbitrary deadline on when [someone] has to leave,” he said.
Erin Leahy, executive director of the group Act on Mass, which has pressed for more transparency in the Legislature, said it was troubling that the Senate was considering “sinking down to the House’s level” on term limits.
“Having one person in that role for an extended period of time — and allowing them to amass more and more power and keeping potential new perspectives at bay — is bad for all of us,” Leahy said.
A one-time social worker and mediator turned legislator, Spilka first won a seat in the Senate in 2004 and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2013. She led the chamber’s powerful budget-writing committee before her fellow senators tapped her to be president following a tumultuous span in which Stanley C. Rosenberg had stepped down from the presidency amid allegations his husband had sexually assaulted multiple men.
At the time, Spilka said her elevation into the president’s office was “a chance to turn the page and right the ship.”
Spilka disclosed in December 2021 that she had suffered a mild stroke weeks earlier, but intended to remain in her position. She later won reelection to both her seat, and last month, as Senate president.
“I love my job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Spilka said in an interview with NBC 10 Boston at the time.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.