SACRAMENTO — When voters in Oklahoma became the first in the country to impose term limits on state legislators this week, they fired a warning shot clearly heard in California, where the question is on the November ballot.
Both supporters and opponents of two California term-limit initiatives, Propositions 131 and 140, agree that the overwhelming vote in Oklahoma signals a growing, nationwide discontent with government.
Oklahomans by a 2-1 margin approved a measure Tuesday that would limit an individual's service in the state Legislature to a lifetime total of 12 years.
That strong support "says there's a national movement to limit lawmakers' terms," said California Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who is vociferously opposed to term limits. "It is not something exclusive to California."
Proponents of limits agree with Roberti's assessment.
"This is like seeing the storm clouds in the distance," said Jim Wheaton, executive director of California Common Cause, on leave to run the campaign for Proposition 131. "You may not hear the thunder yet. You may not feel the rain. But you know the storm is coming. The legislators just have to get the message."
Said Lewis K. Uhler, one of the sponsors of Proposition 140: "This reinforces, certainly, the reaction we are getting around California--people want to discipline the Legislature."
Uhler, treasurer of the National Tax-Limitation Committee, argues that the term-limit measures will send that message to statehouses all over the country, as well as to members of Congress. "This is a nationwide movement," he said. "I think the guys in Washington are going to take note. This baby is going to sweep the country."
Whether the Oklahoma result will influence voters here is a matter of contention.
"It will have no impact on California at all," predicted Chris Lopez, a consultant with Berman and D'Agostino Campaigns, which is running the campaign against both propositions.
Wheaton, however, disagreed. "It will reinforce those who believe in term limits, and it will help those who are aware of the Oklahoma results to feel that the idea is acceptable. . . . It helps send the message that this is an idea that's coming."
California's Proposition 131 was written by state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp as part of his unsuccessful campaign to become governor.
The measure would limit most statewide elected officials--including the governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer--to two four-year terms. It would limit Assembly members and state senators to 12 consecutive years in one office. But the measure would do a good deal more: provide partial public financing of state election campaigns, impose spending limits on campaigns and establish a special unit to prosecute political corruption.
Proposition 140, which has the backing of Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, would impose stringent lifetime limits on state elected officials--eight years for constitutional officers and state senators, six years for Assembly members. The measure also would abolish legislative pensions and cut funds for operating the Legislature by an estimated 38%.
The Oklahoma initiative, sponsored by Lloyd Noble II, an oil company heir, is simple by comparison. Noble said he saw limiting terms as a way of attacking "horrendous waste at the state level." During the campaign, he had the support of a number of prominent politicians, including the state's outgoing Republican governor, Henry L. Bellmon.
Backers of the Oklahoma initiative raised enough money to buy television time in the state's two major markets--Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
The opposition, led by leaders of the Democratic majority in the Legislature, put on a last-minute "little bit of a radio campaign," which proved ineffective, said Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Cole, a Republican supporter of the measure.
By contrast, in California, legislative leaders hope to raise as much as $5 million to oppose the term-limit initiatives and are likely to outspend supporters.
But there is recognition in the opposition camp that beating the measures will prove difficult.
One source close to the anti-term-limit campaign said the issue is so popular that opponents would have to stress other aspects of Propositions 131 and 140 in order to defeat them. "The only way to beat these things is to take the focus off the term-limitation element," he said.