Harris may have longer to make a mark as Senate president than recent predecessors.
COLUMBUS -- State legislative leaders still wield tremendous influence in setting the state agenda, but their influence is waning compared to past leaders because of state term limits, a political expert says.
As state Sen. Bill M. Harris, R-Ashland, takes the reins of the Ohio Senate as president, political expert John C. Green said the value to a region of having a legislative leader hail from the area may be becoming more symbolic than anything else.
"A lot of the power of [legislative] leaders has diminished because of term limits," said Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Under term limits that took effect in 2000, state representatives are limited to four consecutive two-year terms and senators to two consecutive four-year terms.
"These positions are not as valuable as they used to be because of the automatic turnover," Green said.
More time to lead
"[Harris] is in a little better situation," Green said.
Appointed to the Senate in 2000, the 70-year-old Harris was elected in 2002 to a four-year term. He was elected Senate president for the Ohio General Assembly that begins this year and runs through 2006.
If he's re-elected and continues to be chosen leader, Harris, a former Ohio House member and one-time House speaker aspirant, could be president of the Senate for six years.
The previous Senate president, Republican Doug White of Adams County, was forced out of the upper chamber last year by term limits after only two years as leader.
Former House Speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican, was forced from the lower chamber last year after four years as speaker because of term limits.
In contrast, the late Vernal G. Riffe, Jr., the southern Ohio Democrat, served as speaker for twenty years from 1975 to 1995, a few years before state term limits went into effect.
Still, legislative leaders are powerful. The Senate president and the House speaker control the assignments to legislative committees, can promote or impede the progress of legislation, and can raise large amounts of money for political campaigns.
Green said legislative leaders can be influential in getting state funding for projects, for example.
But, legislative leaders will have to balance the resources going back to an individual district with requests from coming around the state.
Also, other lawmakers will often defer to the legislative leader, which opens opportunities for negotiation, Green said.
"What we're really talking about is advantage in the margins," Green said.
One Republican state senator agreed that it can be tough for legislative leaders to balance the needs of the district versus the needs of the state.
"They have the whole state asking them to do things," said state Sen. Ron Amstutz, a Wooster Republican whose Senate district covers a portion of Ashland County.
One intangible advantage that people back home might feel in having a legislative leader hail from their area might be the symbolism that their elected representative is in a position of authority.
"People back home feel their values are being represented," Green said. "That makes people feel good."
Harris said he believes his new post as Senate president will open up opportunities for people in his district, which encompasses a portion of Ashland County and all of Richland, Morrow, Knox and Delaware counties.
"It certainly gives [residents of north-central Ohio] access to the president's office," Harris said. "I've always tried to represent their interests to whoever the president was."
One area Harris said his district could benefit is in representation on state boards and commissions. Some boards are appointed jointly by the Senate president and the House speaker.
As for state funding requests from the region, Harris had this to say: "It'll get fair consideration. I want to be fair with all areas of the state in relation to the support we give them."
Harris said he realizes whether he remains as Senate president depends on whether Republicans keep the majority in coming elections. Right now, the GOP holds a commanding 22 to 11 advantage over Democrats in the Senate.
"I know I was elected for two years," Harris said of the Senate presidency. "I would be glad to serve longer, but I'm not banking on that."