SACRAMENTO — Until this year, Margaret Gladstein was chief advisor to the California Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee, which shapes hundreds of laws including those that govern credit cards, identity theft and flood insurance.
But in June, Gladstein appeared before the committee in a different role: representing the California Retailers Assn., a client of her new employer, a Sacramento lobbying firm.
"I've missed all of you," she playfully told the 10 legislators she had worked for.
Gladstein is part of an exodus of experienced legislative staff to California's lobbying corps, known in Sacramento as the Third House. The staff migration -- a repercussion of term limits passed in 1990 -- has strengthened the influence of interest groups in crafting laws but weakened lawmakers' ability to obtain the objective advice and institutional knowledge that once made California's Capitol a model for other states, according to many lawmakers, lobbyists and Sacramento veterans from both parties.
"What we have seen is the empowerment of the Third House at the expense of the Senate and Assembly," said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). "I'm one of the old-timers, but I find myself going to some of the folks who have already left the building to say, 'Hey, can you give me a history lesson?' "
Though all lawmakers hire office staff who often come and go with their bosses, California's Legislature has long been distinguished by policy experts who devoted years and even decades to transportation, agriculture, education or another specific subject.
Paid salaries sometimes topping $100,000, they work as chief consultants in committees or as senior advisors to legislative leadership. In deciding how to vote, legislators routinely rely on the in-depth analyses consultants write for every bill.
But those jobs feel less secure and professionally satisfying, many staffers say, because of the regular changes in committee leadership due to term limits, which cap tenure at six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
"I had the opportunity to work for two very good chairs, but there was a constant uncertainty about who would be the next chair," Gladstein, who earned $105,000 a year in the Assembly, said in an interview. "My current organization is much more stable."
New legislative leaders can push out or reassign staffers and change the office atmosphere from pleasant to oppressive. And committee chairs who once also sought to master policy are now consumed with plotting their next political step.
All this has made it easier for the Third House -- which always had the advantage of offering higher salaries -- to lure away Capitol experts.
Once there, some former staffers immediately begin work on proposals pending before their former bosses. As in other states, California's former staffers are unencumbered by "cooling off" rules that require former lawmakers and gubernatorial staff to wait a year before lobbying in the areas they worked in.
In the current 2005-06 session, the chief consultants to four major legislative committees -- including Andrew Antwih, chief consultant to the Assembly Transportation Committee, and Mark Sektnan, chief consultant to the Assembly Insurance Committee -- have moved to the Third House. Not coincidentally, all four left in the year their chairpersons were termed out.
Of course, lobbying has always appealed to staffers enticed by salaries double or more what can be earned on the public payroll. But since 1996, when the first batch of lawmakers was forced out office, annual staff turnover in the state Assembly has increased to 36% from 22% during the four years before the initiative, Proposition 140, passed in 1990, records show.
Forty percent of Assembly aides now have less than two years' experience. Senate turnover has averaged 22% a year since 1996. Comparison figures for the years before the initiative's passage were not available.
"This is one of the subtle effects of term limits that voters probably haven't noticed and may not have wanted," said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political science professor who co-wrote a 2004 study on the effects of term limits on the Legislature. "Interest groups play a much more active role in actually drafting the legislation, negotiating the amendments."
The emigration does not disturb many term limits advocates, who view staff as just as interchangeable as their elected bosses.
"It was not, right now, nor was it ever intended to become, a lifetime job to be a staffer in the Capitol," said Ted Costa, one such advocate. "People are always going to go up to bigger and better things. Dick Cheney started as a staffer."
Some other staffers who took their legislative expertise to the Third House in the current two-year session include: