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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS PROPOSITIONS : Term Limits Would Oust Lawmakers and a System

October 13, 1990|PAUL JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Tapping a wellspring of public antipathy to the institutions of government, backers of two November ballot measures that would limit terms of officeholders appear on the verge of transforming the face of California politics as few have done before.

If either Proposition 131 or 140 is approved--and polls show both leading by wide margins--state lawmakers, the governor and other state elected officials will for the first time face limits on their tenure in office. The result, say the initiatives' sponsors, is the Legislature's entrenched leadership ultimately will be swept from office and "lifetime politicians" will be replaced by "citizen-legislators."

Critics don't argue with the popular appeal of the measures' anti-incumbent message. But they foresee a far different outcome: A Legislature with few real experts, where lawmakers are even more obsessed with moving up and few have the experience and political savvy to resist lobbyists and the empire building of career bureaucrats.

The term limits would result in the biggest upheaval in electoral politics in the state since 1966, when the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark one-man, one-vote decision was implemented. With that ruling, large-population counties received proportionately more representation in the Legislature, bringing in 22 new senators, a majority of the 40-member Senate, and 33 new lawmakers to the 80-member Assembly.

The move toward term limits also reflects more widespread political unrest, spawned by a common message that is being delivered to incumbent officeholders: Serve out the limit and move on.

"The mood is real simple," said blunt-talking Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, chief sponsor of Proposition 140. "And that is the folks are really ticked or fed up--call it what you will--over how legislative bodies are conducting themselves."

Proposition 140 would limit lifetime service in the Assembly to six years, in the Senate to eight; Proposition 131 would force members of each house to move on after 12 consecutive years. Both measures limit most statewide elected officials to eight years in office, but Proposition 131 would allow them to run again after sitting out a term.

Additionally, Proposition 131 would provide partial public funding of all state political campaigns, paid for out of a taxpayer-supported campaign fund. It imposes limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, bans off-year campaign fund raising, and establishes a special prosecutor's office to pursue public corruption cases. Proposition 140 would slash the Legislature's operating budget in half, forcing massive staff lay-offs, and would eliminate the legislators' retirement system.

Should both initiatives pass, term limits would be set by the one getting more votes, but all the other provisions of both ballot measures would go into effect.

Opponents of the two constitutional amendments say the measures represent a kind of coup d'etat by initiative--a flagrant attack on basic democracy that denies voters the right to keep returning to office the most experienced and effective politicians.

"Term limits are a come-on for another agenda," said Jay Ziegler, spokesman for the No on 131 and 140 campaign. "In the case of 131 it's clearly campaign financing. In the case of 140, it's to turn back the clock 25 years to a time when the Legislature was totally dependent on special interests and government bureaucrats."

Some view passage of either measure as a major step in a movement--begun in Oklahoma last month--to impose term limits on legislators in all 50 states, and eventually on members of Congress.

"This is a national movement and we're the big banana," said Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), a bitter foe of both ballot measures--and one of a number of mid-term senators who would be forced from office in 1996 if Proposition 140 prevails.

In what is proving to be a roaring battle over term limits, both sides in the debate agree that either of the measures would change fundamentally the way politics is conducted in the nation's most populous state.

Under Proposition 140, with its shorter term limits, 83% of the politicians who take seats in the Assembly and Senate later this year would be swept from office by 1996. By 1998, 100% of the legislators would be unseated.

"It would be wild," said Eugene C. Lee, professor emeritus in political science at UC Berkeley. "The consequences are unpredictable."

Under both measures, the governor, attorney general and most other constitutional officers would be held to the eight-year limits--guaranteeing that no one who wins one of the major offices Nov. 6 would be able to serve continuously past 1998.

Supporters of both measures reach for a broom when groping for a symbol of their intentions.

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