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THE TERM LIMITS DISASTER

New Clout for Ol' Boys

June 15, 2003

One seasoned Sacramento lobbyist predicted in 1990, just before voters approved term limits, that lobbyists would lose their good ol' boy clout among the new citizen-legislators and learn to "argue issues on the merits, rather than on friendship." It was a nice idea.

In June 2003, lawmakers are in an uproar over the bullying of longtime political consultant and lobbyist Richie Ross. As the Legislature split sharply over a bill of interest to farm workers, Ross, their lobbyist, loudly and angrily cursed the chiefs of staff of two legislators who refused to support the bill. Ross vowed to retaliate against one assemblywoman by getting her bills, and perhaps her political career, killed.

Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg) observed later that lobbying had become "increasingly unpleasant, increasingly threatening and increasingly demanding" under term limits. Lawmakers complain that special interests get bills changed at the last moment, often making legislation meaningless. The phrase "this bill is a work in progress" usually means it hasn't been watered down enough to satisfy a special interest.

The legislators, limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, must choose between conflicting opinions and arguments without knowing by experience which is likely to be the most accurate and reliable information.

No one argues that the system is more corrupt than in the old days, when a bill might pass or die on a wink from a powerful bank or oil industry representative. But term limits have brought a chaos to the Legislature that allows more bad bills to get through and good ones to be whittled to death. There is little oversight of state programs, such as information technology, or thought given to California's complicated long-range problems, including untrammeled development, water shortages and traffic congestion. The budget process has broken down completely.

Legislative inexperience and demands on lawmakers' time allow lobbyists to play a greater role in drafting legislation and shepherding it through the Legislature. Many are former legislators or legislative aides and know the process better than the newcomers. Money is ever more prominent in the process.

It was cash that smoothed over the lobbyist-lawmaker rift by the middle of last week as lobbyists obediently flocked to a campaign fund-raising marathon. By one count, there were 24 events in three days, mostly within the shadow of the Capitol and carrying a minimum price tag of $1,000, sometimes just for Jamba Juice and coffee.

There are more lobbyists than ever (nearly 1,000 registered for this session), more bills and jammed committee hearings where testimony may be limited to two minutes per witness. Contributing to campaigns is the way to get noticed. The money doesn't have to buy a vote. It's common now for legislators to merely skip a sensitive vote to avoid offending a major contributor or giving a potential election opponent an issue. Often only half the members of key committees vote.

Term limits did not free the Legislature from special interests, as the sponsors contended they would. The lobbies now are certainly more diverse and represent more than corporations, and public employee unions and Indian tribes have become major forces. But it is lobbyists' job to serve their masters' interests, not the voters', and the grip of the lobbies on the Legislature is stronger than ever.

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