California Term-Limits Law in Question on June Ballot

For the third time since Californians embraced some of the strictest term limits in the nation 22 years ago, opponents are imploring voters to loosen them.
by | May 7, 2012

By Tracey Kaplan, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

For the third time since Californians embraced some of the strictest term limits in the nation 22 years ago, opponents are imploring voters to loosen them.

This time, a carefully crafted initiative on the June ballot -- one of only two statewide measures -- has fans of the term-limits law worried.

At first glance, the measure appears strict: It would reduce the overall amount of time a lawmaker can serve in Sacramento from 14 years to 12. And its greatest political selling point is it wouldn't benefit any current politicians, unlike two previous initiatives that voters rejected.

"This design carries with it less appearance of self-dealing and self-interest," said Lew Uhler, a leading proponent of the 1990 term-limits initiative. "It will be more difficult to defeat."

By shaving two years off the existing lifetime limit, Proposition 28 proponents were able to list it on the ballot as "Limits on Legislators' Terms" -- an alluring title, given the public's continuing support for limits.

It certainly sounded good to Gilroy Republican Edwin Natividad. "I'm for it because I'm for term limits," said Natividad, a 49-year-old postal carrier.

But the measure also allows lawmakers to spend all 12 years in one legislative house, doubling the amount of time Assembly members could serve there. They're now limited to three two-year terms; senators are restricted to two four-year terms.

Compromise or hoax?

Proponents, including the League of Women Voters and labor and business groups, say legislators need more time to learn the ropes, develop relationships and better resist the influence of special interests. They characterize the measure as a compromise because it still includes a cap while allowing legislators to concentrate on governing rather than campaigning for the next seat.

Only two other states restrict state lawmakers to 14 years -- Arkansas and Michigan. In the 11 other states with term limits, politicians are allowed to serve either 16 or 24 years -- and in most can run again for the same office after a break.

"We passed term limits because we were concerned about politicians who spent 25, 30 or 40 years in the building, not whether they spent eight, 10 or 12 years," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who campaigned for the original law and now directs the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics. "Now, we've got people who can barely find their way to the restrooms."

But opponents, including the state Republican Party, question what the public would gain from lengthening politicians' tenure. They contend term limits have forced special interests to work harder to influence legislators and call the initiative a "scam" -- albeit a clever one.

"There's a big hoax going on -- the public believes the proposition strengthens term limits," said Jon Fleischman, a former California Republican Party official who publishes the conservative FlashReport political website. "If the voters understand it, they will reject it."

That's true in the case of Natividad, the Gilroy mail carrier who changed his mind after learning that slightly more than half of the Assembly's 80 members would get to stay longer. "Six years," Natividad said, "is plenty of time to get things done."

But retired physical therapist Betty Smitheram, a Democrat from Alameda, disagrees. "By the time they get their feet wet, they're out the door," she said.

'Yes' side better funded

Opponents have been able to attract only one donor so far to get their message out -- New York multimillionaire Howie Rich, who contributed $45,000.

In contrast, supporters have raised about $1.75 million, much of it to collect signatures to put the proposition on the ballot, and had $123,000 cash on hand as of the last reporting period. Opponents have blasted the motives of several of those donors -- including a developer who contributed $400,000 after the Legislature exempted a proposed football stadium in the City of Industry from environmental laws. They also characterize a $100,000 contribution from a corporation competing to build a new NFL stadium for the San Diego Chargers as an attempt to curry favor with labor and Democrats.

But Proposition 28 opponents note that supporters of Proposition 140, the 1990 term-limits initiative, were outspent by more than 30-to-1. It passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Voters were angry at entrenched career politicians and looked to the limits to foster "citizen legislators" who would serve a few years and then go home. Proposition 140 supporters cited people like California's longest-serving legislator, Ralph Dills, D-Gardena, who had been at the Capitol intermittently for 38 years by then, as well as San Francisco politician Willie Brown, who had been in the Legislature 25 years, including nine as the powerful Assembly speaker.

In 2002, the term-limits law easily withstood the efforts of then-state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and other Democrats to change it. Among other things, Proposition 45 would have allowed termed-out legislators to serve a maximum of four additional years in office if voters from their districts submitted petitions to put them on the ballot. It lost by 16 percentage points.

Critics tried again in 2008, with an initiative similar to Proposition 28, except it would have allowed existing legislators to stay in office an extra four to six years. It lost by seven points.

Along the way, the effect of term limits were in hot dispute. Several studies found they have helped more women and minorities get elected because seats came open sooner.

But a study by the Center for Governmental Studies found that a growing number of politicians weren't "citizen legislators." In 1990, 28 percent of those elected to the Assembly came from local government. By 2010, the number had risen to 68 percent. For the Senate, the number rose during that period from 35 percent to 70 percent.

"Has term limits been a panacea? No," said Mark Petracca, a political-science professor at UC Irvine.

But, he added, given the Legislature's record before term limits were enacted, "What evidence is there that the quality and responsiveness will improve if legislators can serve longer?"

(c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)


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