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The wrong way to reform term limits

There's a reason special interests are bankrolling Proposition 93.

December 12, 2007|Jamie Court and Judy Dugan | Jamie Court is president and Judy Dugan is research director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

California's elected officials have failed this year to take care of any pressing state problems -- except their own. No healthcare reform. No prison reform. No solution to the multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Instead, this year's principal public policy result is a ballot measure to extend legislators' current terms in office.

Proposition 93, which will be on the Feb. 5 ballot, allows legislators to serve 12 years in the state Senate or Assembly rather than splitting a 14-year limit between the two bodies. That translates into six extra years in their current jobs for current legislators.

The biggest beneficiaries are the most powerful: Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate leader Don Perata, who otherwise would be forced out of office next year by term limits.

Special interests have become the ATM for the Proposition 93 campaign, and unions, developers and major telecom companies have all paid out. They all want the same thing in return: legislators who can be bought with a guaranteed long shelf life.

Nunez has been Proposition 93's chief cheerleader, and his political advisor, Gale Kaufman, is steering the effort. The speaker can claim independence from the campaign, but pro-93 donors know exactly who they're pleasing.

Last month, Nunez unveiled his latest healthcare "compromise" in which unions won key concessions, including clauses that would boost union membership in healthcare fields. The same week, $900,000 from three labor unions poured into the pro-93 campaign.

It's possible Sacramento may still act on a watered-down proposal called "healthcare reform," but either way, the issue has been a great shakedown vehicle for the Proposition 93 campaign. More than half of the $5.3 million raised for the pro-93 committee came from stakeholders in the healthcare debate -- hospitals, doctors' groups, unions, medical associations and the like.

The same calculus applies to other industries that ponied up for Proposition 93. Lawmakers could either take on special interests to solve a real problem or shake them down to keep their offices in Sacramento.

Chevron gave $100,000 for Proposition 93 and saw legislation to oversee and mildly regulate its refineries go down to defeat.

Billionaire developer Philip Anschutz, who kicked in $50,000 for Proposition 93, won passage of last-minute legislation giving him access to affordable-housing bond money for his downtown L.A. projects. The bill was backed by Perata and Nunez.

AT&T and Verizon wrote $125,000 in checks for Proposition 93 after winning a sweeping telecom deregulation plan that allows them to lay new cables and plant utility boxes in any town without asking local government permission. They can also sell their new digital packages with minimal oversight. The author: Nunez.

Not every contributor won a corresponding victory, but you can be sure all of them will have favors to ask later.

We personally believe in relaxing term limits to restore legislative expertise and long-term perspective. Yet if Proposition 93 passes, there will be no end to the hubris in Sacramento, where the political class, including the governor, already thumbs its nose at even the appearance of propriety.

Nunez, for example, recently has been criticized for roaming the world's best restaurants, hotels, wineries and boutiques on his campaign contributors' credit card. His response: The news media is just creating a scandal to boost readership.

The state needs elected officials with experience -- but not the experience of golf outings paid for by lobbyists or overseas junkets financed by big industries. Or $1,000 meals, $200 bottles of wine or gifts from Louis Vuitton. And those things came on top of the regular taxpayer-paid perks for legislators: the state SUVs, $100 extra per day in living expenses, the best health insurance money can buy. Of course the political class in Sacramento doesn't want to leave. Who would?

If the term-limits ballot measure wins, its beneficiaries will take from their victory this lesson: Forget doing the public's business, just rake in special interest money to keep yourself in office.

Proposition 93 must die for the sins of politicians, or the sins will only grow.

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