California's Proposition 28 Would Let Legislators Serve Longer Stints

The self-proclaimed "ayatollah" of the California Assembly, Speaker Willie Brown, was a prime target in the successful campaign to pass legislative term limits 22 years ago. Ballot arguments at the time talked of stripping power from "legislative dictators" and ousting the "speaker's cronies."
by | May 24, 2012

The self-proclaimed "ayatollah" of the California Assembly, Speaker Willie Brown, was a prime target in the successful campaign to pass legislative term limits 22 years ago.

Ballot arguments at the time talked of stripping power from "legislative dictators" and ousting the "speaker's cronies." Vote yes, supporters said, and never again could anyone gain a stranglehold on the Assembly or state Senate for a decade or more.

Proposition 28 on California's June ballot would once again allow longer leadership stints.

The measure reduces from 14 to 12 the total number of years that a lawmaker can serve. But because all of those years could be served in one house, Assembly speakers could hold the job twice as long as they can now. Senate presidents pro tem could remain at the helm four years longer than is currently possible.

"We think that's detrimental to the public," said Jon Fleischman, spokesman for No on 28. "When you lengthen term limits, when you give people more time, that allows for the concentration of power."

California lawmakers have had their careers determined by term limits since voters passed Proposition 140 in 1990. It allowed legislators to serve no more than six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate.

Brown was a leader in the effort against the measure and called it a "real tragedy" when it passed.

In an interview this week, he said painting legislative leaders as villains at the time was dishonest.

"There's great value in having people with institutional memory, people with some adult attitude toward a democracy, people who have built relationships, because, after all, democracy depends upon relationships," he said.

Today, Brown has some unexpected allies for his point of view. Tight term limits simply weaken legislative leaders and embolden groups that see the clock ticking toward new leadership, supporters of Proposition 28 say.

"When Willie Brown told the trial lawyers to go pound sand, they had to go pound sand," said Jim Brulte, who served stints as Republican leader of the Assembly and state Senate.

"Back in the old days, every interest in Sacramento needed the legislative leadership," Brulte said. "Today, the legislative leadership needs the special interests."

Brulte campaigned for the 1990 term limits measure but says he's willing to make a change now that he has seen it play out. He supports Proposition 28, saying "I believe in term limits. I think this fixes them a little bit."

Powerful groups no longer are afraid to throw their weight around against leaders who are inexperienced or nearly termed out, he said.

The California Teachers Association, for example, sent fliers to voters in then-Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata's district in 2005, hammering him by declaring that the Democrat wanted to cut school funding.

"That was designed to show every member of the Legislature that if they're willing to go after Don Perata, who's the pro tem, they're willing to go after you," Brulte said.

Current Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, a Democrat, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg cannot serve in the Legislature past 2014, allowing them leadership tenure of up to five and six years, respectively. Proposition 28 would not apply to current legislators.

By comparison, Brown served as Assembly speaker for 15 years, from 1981 to 1995. His counterpart in the Senate, Democrat David Roberti, led that house for 13 years, from 1981 to 1994.

Two of the past three Assembly speakers, Fabian Nunez and Perez, were elected leaders at the end of their freshman year because of the current six-year term limit and a desire by members for longevity at the top.

Ted Costa of People's Advocate, a political watchdog organization, agrees with Brown that longevity would allow legislative leaders to develop closer Capitol ties - but says that's precisely what's wrong with a 12-year leader.

"That's a long time to become palsy-walsy with the lobbyists," Costa said.

Fleischman agreed, saying, "The priority would go back to these personal relationships that created the phenomenon of Willie Brown. We don't think that good legislating comes from entrenched incumbents getting more comfortable with lobbyists."

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said Proposition 28's likely effect would be that leaders would serve about the same number of years that they do now but not get chosen until they are experienced lawmakers.

Prior to term limits, legislative leaders tended to be Capitol veterans. Brown, for example, served in the Assembly for 15 years before ascending to the speakership.

If Proposition 28 passes, Schnur said, "It's hard to imagine a circumstance under which a caucus turns to a new, relatively unknown quantity and bestows that kind of responsibility on him."

Roberti has taken no position on Proposition 28. He would like to see even longer term limits - 16 or 20 years, perhaps.

Experienced legislative leadership is an asset, but it should be tempered with the threat of overthrow, which is not likely to occur if lawmakers' careers are so short that they're afraid to risk being tarred by a failed coup, Roberti said.

Fleischman countered that loosening current term limits would backfire by having the opposite effect, making lawmakers less willing to challenge a leader who could retaliate for many years.

Both Pete Schabarum and Lew Uhler, leaders in the 1990 drive to impose term limits, said they're concerned Proposition 28 would enable leaders to exercise power far longer.

"Current term limits ain't broke, don't fix them," said Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee.

But Schabarum said he is leaning toward voting yes on Proposition 28 because it retains a finite cap on terms while making limited changes in hopes of boosting legislative performance that he feels has been dismal.

"Leaning is a good word," Schabarum said. "But I haven't fallen over the hill."

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