Budgets arrive three weeks later in term limits era

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs the overdue state budget today, one unpleasant fact stands out — it’s his third late budget in four attempts.

His predecessor, Gray Davis, came in on-time only two times out of five. And Pete Wilson had only one budget signed by the June 30 deadline in his eight years in office.

What do these three very different governors have in common? They worked in the era of term limits.

According to statistics posted on the state Department of Finance website, the state had an on-time June budget 10 out of 22 years between 1968 and 1989. The average day for the Legislature to pass the budget was June 29, while the Governor typically signed it by July 3. The state Constitution requires the budget to be approved by the Legislature by June 15; there is no penalty, however, for failure. The governor is supposed to sign the budget by July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

From 1968 to 1989, the latest budget was signed on July 21.

With the passage of term limits in 1990, the state government hit a string of not even being able deliver a budget by this date in an average year. Since then, the Legislature has averaged passing the budget on July 17, with the Governor signing it on July 24.

Toss in former Governor George Deukmejian’s final budget in 1990, which he signed on July 31, and you have four on-time budgets in the last 18 years. In other words, since the advent of term limits, late budget have happened more than twice as often, and have been far later. While there were no August budgets between 1968 and 1989, there have been five since then–and this doesn’t count early September budgets in 1992 and 2002. The number of times a budget passed one or both houses with the minimum number of votes also increased slightly.

Kevin Spillane, a spokesman for the California Term Limits Defense Fund, disputes that term limits have led to late budgets. He said more blame should rest with California’s heavily gerrymandered districts, which leave legislators in both parties with little fear of retribution for being stubborn.

“Yeah, the fact that Fabian and Don can’t stay in office forever causes cancer,” Spillane said. “To say that’s it’s term limits is spin from politicians who have failed.”

Spillane cited numerous reasons for keeping term limits. For instance, they help prevent the creation of entrenched political elites, he claimed, and have led to more women, Asians and Latinos serving in the state legislature.

But first and foremost, he said, is their ongoing popularity with voters. According to a May Public Policy Institute of California poll, Californians support term limits by 61 percent to 23 percent. He also noted that in 2002, Californians turned back Proposition 45 by a nearly 16 point margin, despite the pro side heavily outspending their opposition. The initiative would have let legislators spend one more term in the Senate or two in the Assembly.

Sixteen total states passed term limits between 1990 and 2000, many of them across the libertarian-leaning West. The average measure pulled in two-thirds of votes cast, though California’s term limits initiative got only 52 percent. Still, few states with limits have shown much inclination to get rid of them.

This hasn’t stopped the sponsors of a measure to overhaul California’s term limits from latching on to the budget stalemate to prove their point.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Richard Stapler, communications director for the Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act.

The act would allow legislators to serve 12 total years in the Legislature, not dependent on house. Under current rules, members can serve up to 14 years, but are limited to six years (three terms) in the Assembly and eight years (two terms) in the Senate.

People have frequently complained that the budget and other difficult legislative topics are too hard for legislators to master in just a few years on the job. Even though the current initiative would give legislators less total time to learn, the ability to stay in one house could aide in forming the types of relationships that help legislators do take on their hardest tasks–such as passing a budget.

“There’s no ability to develop strong relationships with people across the aisle,” said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. “With term limits and the two-thirds vote requirement, it’s a wonder we can pass a budget at all.”

Spillane said that the creation of overly close relationships–particularly between legislators and lobbyists–is one thing term limits are designed to prevent. He also dislikes the allowing a legislator to stay 12 years in one house because he wants to avoid “imperial” leadership that stays around in one house for a decade or more. Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, could stick around until 2014 if the initiative passes, he said.

Indeed, few would dispute that poor across-the-aisle relationships have been on sharp display in recent weeks. While Republicans are generally more supportive of term limits, a Field Poll released this week showed they were slightly more likely to support the reform measure than Democrats. Overall, the measure was leading 59 percent to 30 percent among likely voters.

There’s a reason the GOP may be turning on term limits in California, said political science professor Thad Kousser of the University of California at San Diego–they’re its main victims. Without the time to form the kind of strong relationships Evans described, he said, minority parties become more marginalized, he said. Both sides have less to lose from alienating the other, he added.

Kousser laid out many of the problems he sees with term limits in a 2004 research paper called “Adapted to Term Limits,” written with political science professor Bruce Cain of the University of California at Berkeley. The effects of term limits on budgets and other areas were very similar between four term limit states: California, Colorado, Maine and Oregon. Budgets came later, legislator were about half as likely to make changes to budget proposals given to them by governors, and a legislature’s ability to provide effective oversight of state agencies was reduced.

“Legislators have become less informed on policy in general, and on budgets in particular,” Kousser said.

One seemingly odd thing about the effect of California’s term limits law is that the late budget’s started happening years before anyone was actually termed out. Between 1990 and 1995, only one legislator termed out, Kousser noted, and that was due to a fluke situation. The first budget passed by a legislature that had been substantially remade by term limits came in 1997.

Yet the 1990-1996 “term limits transition” period delivered budgets that were just as late as the ones that came since. According to Kousser and others, this is because a change in mindset preceded any actual change in bodies on the floor. Democrats now in the California Legislature can be confident they’ll never serve with a Republican majority, Kousser notes, while Republicans know that sidetracking the budget is one of the only ways they can exercise power.

Stapler, meanwhile, attributed part of the change to that fact that members constantly have to think about their next job.

“If you’re in the Assembly and you’re thinking about running for a Senate seat, you’re going to be focused on that,” said Term Limit Reform’s Stapler. “Your focus is not going to be on oversight responsibilities that aren’t that glamorous.”

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