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New fight takes shape over term limits

Prop. 28 would allow legislators to serve 12 years in one house, rather than 14 between the Assembly and Senate. Backers say the move would give lawmakers more experience.

May 18, 2012|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, supports Prop. 28. Above, Schnur listens as Mayor Villaraigosa speaks at a USC class.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, supports… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

SACRAMENTO — Twenty-two years after California became one of the first states to limit legislators' terms in office, voters are about to decide whether the rules should be changed.

In 1990, voters limited lawmakers to three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year stints in the Senate, for a total of 14 years in the Legislature. Proposition 28, on the June 5 ballot, would limit lawmakers to 12 years in the Legislature but allow all of those to be served in one house.

Proponents contend that existing law doesn't give people enough time in one office to fully master complex issues and the lawmaking process. They also say lawmakers spend too much time fundraising for the leap from one legislative house to the other — usually from the Assembly to the Senate.

"The simple truth is our current term limits law is not working," said Trudy Schafer, senior director for the League of Women Voters of California, which supports Proposition 28. "It has made politicians more focused on campaigning for their next office than on doing their job."

Proposition 28 would not apply to legislators currently in office.

The opposition is led by national groups that see California as an important battleground on the issue. They say the initiative is being sold in a misleading way by proponents who say it toughens term limits even though it would actually allow legislators to serve longer in one office.

They also say the measure would make it harder for average citizens to get elected because incumbents would be able to serve more terms.

"The truth is Proposition 28 is nothing more than a scam that career politicians and their lobbyist co-conspirators are attempting to pull on the voters," said Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, a Virginia group working to put limits on Congress.

California was one of the first of 15 states to adopt legislative term limits, and its rules are among the strictest. Those behind the 1990 measure argued then that term limits, by forcing out veteran officeholders, would allow more "citizen legislators" a chance to run successfully for office.

The change increased the diversity of membership and viewpoints in the Legislature, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He was a leading voice for the ballot measure in 1990, when he was communications director for the California Republican Party.

Today, Schnur supports Proposition 28.

"We're still going to see greater numbers of teachers and doctors and business people serve in the Legislature," he said, "but we're also going to give them the ability to learn how to do their jobs without constant disruption."

Kicking legislators out of the Assembly after six years and the Senate after eight leaves legislators more reliant on bureaucrats and lobbyists for guidance on complex issues, said Philip Ung, policy advocate for California Common Cause, which also supports the measure.

"It has opened the door for greater influence by lobbyists and special interests," Ung said.

Opponents have put together a mail campaign and posted a video ad against the initiative on YouTube and on their campaign website, narrated by term limits activist and former game show host Chuck Woolery. It points out that the measure would double the amount of time a politician could spend in the Assembly and raise by 50% the amount of time someone could spend in the Senate, even while cutting two years off the total permitted in the Legislature.

"They're lying to you," Woolery says in the video. "Passing Prop. 28 will allow legislators to increase their time in office and the self-serving power that comes with it."

Under Proposition 28, the advantages of incumbency in name recognition and fundraising would keep officeholders in their jobs longer, said some opponents, forcing other aspirants to wait longer for an open seat.

"Open seats create competitive elections, and that is what incumbent politicians and special interests loathe the most," Blumel said.

Backers of the measure have raised $2.9 million to spend on their campaign, while opponents have brought in $145,000.

All of the opposition money has come from East Coast activists associated with U.S. Term Limits. They include Philadelphia real estate magnate Howard Rich, a founder of the group, and the Liberty Initiative Fund of Virginia, headed by former U.S. Term Limits Director Paul Jacob.

The biggest contribution to the campaign in favor of Proposition 28 came from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which provided $840,000 in loans and contributions. A $100,000 contribution came from L.A. Live Properties, a company owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz. Last year, he won approval from the Legislature of a special law to prevent protracted legal challenges to the NFL stadium he wants to build in Los Angeles.

The pro-Proposition 28 campaign committee, Californians for a Fresh Start, also received $400,000 from Majestic Realty, a firm headed by Ed Roski Jr. In 2009, the Legislature granted a similar exemption for an NFL stadium proposed by Roski in the City of Industry.

The labor federation lobbied for both stadium projects, saying they would create thousands of union jobs.

Republican blogger Jon Fleischman, co-chair of the campaign against Proposition 28, sees the contributions as payback for legislators who approved the stadium projects. Legislative leaders sponsored a similar term limits measure in 2008 that would have covered sitting members, and voters rejected it. This time, legislators are staying out of the campaign, leaving it to their supporters to carry the ball.

"In return," Fleischman said, the stadium interests "are giving campaign contributions. And they are trying to fool the voters."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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