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ENDORSEMENTS 2008: It would reward a few lawmakers now, but Prop. 93 is right for the future.

January 21, 2008

Like many political reform initiatives, Proposition 93 presents voters with a quandary. It would improve California's political system by rationally reforming the legislative term-limits law. But it also would confer a temporary, unearned and undeserved benefit on a handful of elected officials who broke faith with Californians. Now the question before voters is whether it's better to punish those politicians, and in so doing punish ourselves, by squandering a rare chance to improve the system, or to begin repairing the broken process without worrying that a few elected officials may, for a short time, enjoy an unexpected political afterlife.

The Times urges voters to reject the childish world of politics and to engage instead in the grown-up business of governing. Vote yes on Proposition 93.

Under the term-limits law voters adopted 18 years ago, legislators can serve a maximum of three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate, for a total of 14 years. Under Proposition 93, they would be able to serve 12 years, in either or both houses, in any combination of terms they could work out. If the measure passes, it's widely expected that most would serve the full 12 in a single house.

Term limits would remain intact, and in fact legislators would be restricted to two fewer years than currently allowed. But by serving all those years in one house, they would be able to build up the expertise that currently is so sorely lacking in Sacramento. As things stand, most lawmakers serve for too short a period to gain expertise, so they never master the issues on which they vote. They are dependent on the experts who are never termed out: lobbyists for special interests and lawyers for the Democratic and Republican parties. Those lobbyists are the same people who contribute the most campaign money, and right now, it's that money doing the talking and walking in Sacramento.

More time in one house means lawmakers wouldn't be so dependent on lobbyists for their supposed expertise. Lawmakers also would have more clout to say no to lobbyist money -- in part because they wouldn't have to plan a run for another office quite so soon.

The rub? There are two. First, we were hoping for something better. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) at least implied that they would join term-limits reform with a measure they don't like, but that is even more crucial to correcting the state's broken politics: redistricting reform. They reneged. Second, the term-limits reform includes a transition provision that likely will keep Nunez and Perata in power for a few more years, in effect rewarding them for their treachery.

We don't want to reward Nunez, Perata or the rest of them for being babies about redistricting. They should have put it on the ballot. But what encourages them to be such big babies? In part it's their limited tenure, which empowers the political party lawyers to press for the status quo on districting, and encourages the legislative leaders to hang on to whatever power they do have. Californians have a chance to change the rules of the game.

Sure, it stinks that Nunez and Perata would get a special benefit, but voters should not spike the chance at term-limits reform just because a few leaders would get a few years extra in power. That negative consequence would be short-lived. Then it would be gone forever, and we would have a new term-limits structure we could live with forever. The Times has long been skeptical of term limits of any kind, but Proposition 93 provides a positive and creative compromise.

Redistricting, meanwhile, is out of the Legislature's hands and will be before voters in November, when they can finish the job that the Assembly and Senate couldn't handle.

Besides, no lawmaker gets more time in office without approval of the voters in his or her home district. That's democracy, and it should be protected, not limited.

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