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Threat to Term Limits Is Seen

An advocacy group acts to block what it sees as a plan to weaken state restrictions.

September 07, 2003|Jenifer Warren and Virginia Ellis | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Officials of a national term-limits advocacy group arrived in the capital late last week in hopes of derailing what they described as a proposal to weaken restrictions on how long California legislators may serve.

Representatives of Washington-based U.S. Term Limits say Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), among others, wants the Legislature to place on the March ballot a measure that would repeal the current term limits law and replace it with one allowing him and other termed-out legislators to serve additional years.

Wesson spokeswoman Patricia Soto insisted that the speaker "has no proposal" for changing the term limits law. In the Senate, President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said he had "heard talk" of a last-minute effort to propose changes in the law but that he hadn't seen any legislation. Burton added that he suspected such a proposal would not fare well at the polls: "I don't necessarily see the people passing it," he said.

So far, lawmakers have not discussed the plan publicly. But officials in the advocacy group say they believe an unrelated bill will be amended to include the term-limit proposal in the chaotic closing days of the legislative session this week. Typically, that is a time when controversial measures are hurried through the Legislature, receiving little scrutiny amid the massive number of other bills requiring action.

Though details are sketchy, legislative sources say several versions of a proposed plan have been circulated, each of which would permit current officeholders to serve additional years.

One alternative would limit lawmakers to a total of 12 years in the Legislature but would grandfather in those now in office.

That would mean Wesson, who under current law would be termed out after six years in the Assembly, could serve another six years in that house. Burton, who will have to leave office in 2004 after eight years in the Senate, could stay four more years.

A key to the term-limit proposal is another bill already nearing final passage, SB 430 by Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine). Johnson's bill would mandate two primary elections: one, the presidential primary, in March, the other, featuring congressional and legislative contests, on the last Tuesday in June.

It is the timing of the second primary that is crucial. If a term-limit change were passed by voters in March, a June 29 primary would give the previously termed-out lawmakers just enough time to file papers seeking reelection.

That possibility was enough to lure a representative of U.S. Term Limits, the prime advocacy group for restrictions on the tenure of elected officials, to Sacramento.

"We're really opposed to any tinkering by the Legislature on term limits," said Paul Jacob, a senior fellow for the organization. Jacob said that if the Legislature managed to pass a term-limits proposal for the ballot -- which would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber and the governor's signature -- his organization is confident the voters probably would defeat it.

But he said that, in principle, "voting on term limits year after year, ad infinitum, is not what the voters want. And it's a real signal that these legislators just don't get it."

Last year, a measure to alter the state's 1990 term-limits law -- Proposition 45 -- was defeated by a ratio of 58% to 42%, he noted. It was also sponsored by the Legislature and promoted during an $10-million campaign.

Jacob said his organization suspected that the gubernatorial recall could so distract opponents that the measure would slip through with little notice.

"With the recall, attention is diverted, so anything could happen," he said.

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