How long should a legislator serve?

We join other well-wishers in hoping that Republican Luke Kenley has a happy retirement after 25 years of exemplary service in the Indiana Senate.

As chairman for nine sessions of the Appropriations Committee, he has been one of the most influential members of the General Assembly. He has had a hand in almost every financial decision in state government, and his institutional knowledge of how things work in Indianapolis will be hard to replace. Thank you for your dedication to the public, senator.

But his retirement announcement got us to wondering about how long a member of the General Assembly should serve. Is 25 years too long or not long enough? Or is it just about right?

The great advantage of having a part-time legislature is that our lawmakers have to have other employment, so they must live and work among the rest of us mere mortals. They can’t create a self-contained world of professional lawmakers who don’t have to acknowledge reality. They must live by the rules they enact for everybody.

The great disadvantage is that very lack of professionalism. We might be able to elect people who have our best interests at heart, but it is very likely they won’t know what to do about it. So we have to hope our senators and representatives stay in the General Assembly long enough to become competent at the art of legislating but not so long that the exhilaration of political battle pushes out their commitment to the people who elected them.

We’d suggest that Kenley has been there just about the right amount of time.

He is “viewed by many,” news stories say, as a “moderating force” in the conservative Senate GOP caucus. With his position and experience, says Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute President John Ketzenberger, “It’s hard to be an ideologue in a place like that because you have the most comprehensive view of the state government.” So Kenley is right now a good mix of conservative (balancing the budget was one of his two final goals) and pragmatist (getting road-repair tax increases to pass was the other). If he stayed much longer, he’d likely become too much the pragmatist, too little a conservative.

Through the work of Kenley and fiscal conservatives like him, Indiana’s budget is healthier than a lot of other states’. For that alone, he deserves our profound thanks.

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