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Old School's Out

August 31, 2004

Back in 1967, when John Burton and John Vasconcellos were young pups in the California Legislature, Ronald Reagan had just taken office as governor. The state had a $5-billion annual budget and fewer than 20 million residents. Reagan, after inheriting a budget deficit, signed into law what still ranks as the biggest tax increase in state history.

This was before legalized abortion, before the California Environmental Quality Act, before Proposition 13 and term limits. Legendary Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh was turning the Legislature into the best in the country, as judged by national academic and governmental experts.

Burton and Vasconcellos were then part of the new broom in Sacramento. Only the year before, redistricting of the Senate, compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court's one-man, one-vote decision, radically shifted the balance of power from the conservative rural "cow counties" to the urban centers.

Now, Burton, Vasconcellos and four other members of the state Senate have only a few days left, ordered out by the term-limits law approved by voters in 1990. They are the last legislators from the time before Assembly members were limited to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms.

The six termed-out senators take with them more than 140 years of legislative experience and institutional memory. In addition to Burton (D-San Francisco), president pro tem of the Senate, and Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), the others are Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), Dede Alpert (D-San Diego), Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) and Byron Sher (D-Stanford). All served in the Assembly before moving on to the Senate. Sher is of particular note for his environmental bills.

These legislators take with them the last memories of a Legislature capable of long-term thinking, able to distinguish the workable from the foolish. Although their philosophies span politics, they share attributes that are too rare these days: civility and respect for their colleagues and the institution.

No one watching today's Legislature, with increasingly inexperienced and inexpert revolving-door leadership, can say that California's draconian term limits have improved the state. The evidence will be even clearer with the last veterans booted out the door.

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