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California Rethinks Term Limits, Again

California voters eased restrictions in 2012 on how long lawmakers can serve. The changes are already helping some think more about the future when crafting policies.

The California State Capitol in Sacramento.
The California State Capitol in Sacramento.
David Kidd/Governing
Since becoming widespread in the 1990s, term limits remain popular among voters who see them as a check against political power. But many observers blame term limits for myopic budget decisions and increased partisanship.

Now California is revisiting the idea of term limits. Voters approved a ballot measure in 2012 to relax limits, and state lawmakers and other elected officials say they’re already seeing hopeful signs of change in an office that had become shortsighted. California’s Proposition 28 actually reduces the overall number of years legislators can serve from 14 to 12, but it allows them to use that time entirely in one chamber or to divide it between chambers however they’d like. A state law passed in 1990, which limited lawmakers to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate, kicked off a decade-long wave of term-limit laws that ultimately passed in nearly half the states.

Since that initial push, research on term limits’ ill effects has poured in. Numerous studies have linked the laws to poor fiscal health, arguing they actually lead to less sound policies because legislators won’t have to face voter wrath later on. Others studies have found that term limits give interest groups and career lobbyists the upper hand because they’ve spent far more time in state capitols than the lawmakers themselves.

Some in California say the change is already having an effect. Assemblyman Ken Cooley of Sacramento County says he’s seen a heightened interest among new lawmakers to seek out information for their committee assignments and try to build expertise in a subject area. Developing a serious depth of knowledge wasn’t as realistic as before, he says. State Controller John Chiang agrees that he’s also seen a shift in attitudes: “A lot of freshmen, in their public comments, are taking a long view—that six, seven or eight years from now the actions they take will have an impact.”

While California might have helped start the national term-limit movement, the newest change will likely have less impact in other states. An effort to abolish or relax existing limits arose between 1999 and 2003, when more than 100 bills were introduced in 17 states, but it was met with limited success. Over the past three years, more than 20 bills have been introduced in statehouses to increase or extend terms, but none have passed. One of those measures is still pending in Michigan, and another in Arkansas is on the ballot this year.

Arkansas voters soundly rejected term-limit changes in 2004, but this time proponents craftily inserted their language into a broad package that, among other things, prohibits corporate contributions to candidates and lobbyist gifts to elected officials, says Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. “I think term limits here remain as popular as ever, which is to say that politicians remain as unpopular as ever,” Parry says. “But what they’ve done here is package it as something else, with something that they hope will be popular enough to succeed.”

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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