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Proposed tweak to term limits makes eminent sense

By allowing California legislators to serve 12 years in one house, Prop. 28 would instill some adult supervision and dampen political ambition, especially in the Assembly.

May 10, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Jim Brulte, former Republican leader in both the Assembly and Senate, supports Prop. 28. Above, Brulte, left, with fellow Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham in 2003.
Jim Brulte, former Republican leader in both the Assembly and Senate, supports… (Robert Durell, Los Angeles…)

Proposition 28 proposes a tiny tweak in legislative term limits. But it could have a huge impact on legislative quality.

Little changes sometimes can result in big improvements.

No one knows for sure where Prop. 28 would lead, but simple logic strongly suggests a legislative upgrade. At least the original term-limits author, former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, tends to think so.

"I'm persuaded it's probably the right thing to do," Schabarum told me, stopping short of a formal endorsement.

The first thing to understand about this June 5 ballot initiative —sponsored by business, labor and good government groups — is that, unlike with past attempts to alter term limits, there is no legislative conspiracy at play. The term limits of current and past legislators would not be affected.

Prop. 28 would affect only lawmakers first elected after it passes, meaning in November.

It would reduce from 14 to 12 the total years someone could serve in the Legislature. But — here's the key part — all 12 years could be served in one house.

Under California's existing term limits, among the most restrictive in the nation, six years are allowed in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. More precisely: three two-year terms in the lower house and two four-year stints in the upper.

The purpose of changing that and allowing legislators to serve all 12 years in one house is to instill some adult supervision and to dampen political ambition, especially in the Assembly.

The quaint notion of original term limit advocates — that selfless "citizen legislators" would serve for a while in the state Capitol and then return to their pharmacies or farms — was impractical and defied human nature. They came to Sacramento and immediately began looking for another political office to run for — usually eyeing the Senate from the Assembly.

A report last year by the former Center for Governmental Studies found that legislators increasingly were career politicians who had ascended from local government. These "professional legislators," the report said, "continue to seek careers in other government positions — a form of political musical chairs.

"Indeed, politicians are now moving faster and faster to the music."

So that's one problem: Legislators spend too much time plotting to occupy their next political perch.

An even bigger problem is that they don't hang around one legislative house long enough to gain the public policy expertise and legislating experience necessary to perform the quality work that complex California desperately demands.

Under Prop. 28, says Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, "we will see [new] committee chairs in the Assembly who have more than 10 months of legislative experience .... who have the ability to learn the process, learn the politics and learn the policy. And that's good."

Prop. 28 was initiated by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. County Federation of Labor.

Regarding current term limits, L.A. chamber President Gary Toebben says, "No one would run a business this way. Many legislators simply do not have the experience or the commitment to do the job for the citizens.

"They don't have the commitment because they're not going to be around very long. There's not an incentive to think long-term. Legislators can hold on for a couple of years and pass along the problem to someone else."

Jim Brulte, former Republican leader in both the Assembly and Senate who's now a government relations consultant, also strongly supports Prop. 28.

Recalling when he first was elected to the Assembly in 1990 — the year term limits were enacted by voters — Brulte says: "I did not know what I did not know. It wasn't until I got to the Senate and became minority leader [in 2000] that I really figured out that when I was in the Assembly I did not know what I did not know.

"But with time and experience under my belt, I learned. Experience is not a bad quality to have."

Opponents on the far right, however, are cynical and suspicious.

Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative blog FlashReport, has written that "Prop. 28 is designed to trick voters into thinking it strengthens term limits when it does the opposite." It actually "guts" term limits, he claims.

The alleged "trick" is in reducing the total years a legislator could serve and attracting support from term-limits advocates. Only a reactionary would consider that a trick rather than a compromise.

Fleischman contends that the measure would gut term limits by doubling the maximum time a legislator could serve in the Assembly and increasing it by 50% in the Senate — although the lawmaker would need to choose one or the other.

The best response to that comes from Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. Schnur, a former Republican consultant, helped pass the 1990 term limits initiative and was the chief strategist defending it against a later proposal to extend the terms.

"When people voted for term limits," Schnur says, "they wanted to restrict the number of years a politician could spend in the Legislature. I don't think very many people worried about which side of the Capitol the politicians sat in."

He adds that "if your goal is to incapacitate government altogether, you're probably not going to like this initiative. If you hate term limits across the board, you're not going to like it either. For everyone else, this is the best of both worlds."

I haven't heard anyone argue that the legislative status quo is worth preserving. Time for a tweak.

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