Term limits: A saga of irony and miscues

What goes around comes around.

Twenty-two years after Republicans successfully led a move to thwart the power of then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown by limiting lawmakers’ terms in office and eliminating their pensions, voters will consider the issue again – this time to partly undo what they did earlier.

A lot has happened relating to term limits in the intervening years, much of it steeped in irony.

Long-term incumbency, once the power core of the Legislature, withered. As its power dwindled, the influence of lobbyists – always a fact of life in the Capitol – increased exponentially. As the terms diminished, so did the leadership, which changed hands frequently. As the limits kicked in, termed-out lawmakers turned to Congress, local governments, lobbying firms, think tanks, private businesses and elsewhere looking for a place to land. As lawmakers left the Capitol, their key staff members that remained wielded ever greater influence as the holders of institutional memory and expertise.  

The temporary, “Citizen Legislators” envisioned by the supporters of term limits became even more captive to powerful interests than their predecessors. 

Ironically, while term limits spelled the legislative end of powerful Democrats like Willie Brown – the poster child for GOP anger, Brown would probably still be speaker if he hadn’t been forced to leave – it also marked the departure of talented and powerful Republicans, who were forced out and replaced by less experienced leaders. Brown once said that he and Republican Ken Maddy together could solve any problem in half an hour. He was probably right. 

And as the revolving door of legislators took hold, the stature of the Legislature as an institution diminished, fueled by a succession of governors who found political benefit in blaming the Legislature for the state’s ills and by minority Republicans, their clout ebbing, who did likewise. The public agrees: A February Field Poll found that nearly two-thirds of voters disapproved of the Legislature’s performance.

In 1990, voters approved by some 300,000 votes Proposition 140, which limited members’ terms to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, or a total of 14 years for both houses. Constitutional officers were limited to two, four-hear terms. The proposition’s main proponent was Pete Schabarum, an L.A. Republican and former professional football player, Assembly member and county supervisor, who had led the crusade against the Legislature. Other supporters included business interests and anti-tax activist Lewis Uhler.

On Tuesday, voters will decide on Proposition 28, which cuts the total number of years to 12, but allows a lawmaker to spend all of them in one house. The latest Field Poll shows the measure ahead by 22 percentage points.

Schabarum had found allies in L.A, where a third of California’s voters live. “Pete Schabarum’s term-limit initiative is long overdue,” the L.A. Times opined at the time. “The people of this state have seen too many powerful people in office for themselves, while the Legislature has done little or nothing about it. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) wants to keep his cushy little job. That’s why he raised $5 million to defeat the redistricting measures and will probably attempt to raise more to defeat Prop. 140.”

Although little remembered, there was a rival measure on that same ballot, Proposition 131, which would have limited lawmakers’ terms to 12 years and instituted partial public financing of campaigns. It was rejected. Proposition 131 was backed by national consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who two years earlier had successfully pushed the landmark Proposition 103, which created the state’s first elected insurance commissioner.

Proposition 140 reflected the depth of the voters’ unhappiness with the Legislature, and wound up being backed by Democrats and Republicans alike: The measure was approved handily even though the backers of term limits were outspent by better than 30-to-1.

The measure’s passage also reflected the public’s reaction to the federal corruption sting of the Legislature that came to light in August 1988. It ultimately snared Democrats and Republicans alike and dramatically diminished the public’s perception of the Legislature as an institution.

But there’s more irony: That undercover sting was prompted by Republicans’ complaints to federal agents about Brown, who emerged unscathed, while an accuser, former Assembly GOP Leader Pat Nolan, wound up going to federal prison. 

Gov. Jerry Brown, who first served two terms beginning in 1975 before term limits took effect, currently is serving his third term and if, as expected, he decides to run again and is elected, he can serve another four-year term.

Cutting lawmakers’ terms may not have changed the type of person who seeks public office, but it did have an unintended consequence on the way laws are made, according to a study by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California 14 years after voters approved the measure.

“The effects on Sacramento’s policymaking processes have been more profound. In both houses, committees now screen out fewer bills assigned to them and are more likely

to see their work rewritten at later stages. The practice of “hijacking” Assembly bills — gutting their contents and amending them thoroughly in the Senate — has increased sharply. As a body, the Legislature is less likely to alter the governor’s budget, and its own budget process neither,” the PPIC noted.

“Another major problem area is legislative leadership. With only six years in the Assembly before a lifetime ban goes into effect, Speakers have less than two years to leave

their mark, and lame duck leaders face serious obstacles,” the PPIC added. ”Special interest money still flows in roughly the same proportions to Senate and Assembly leaders and in ever-rising amounts; term limits have not eased the burden of fundraising in any way. However, the authors find no evidence that term limits have contributed to rising legislative partisanship.

Rather, the longer members are in the Legislature, the more partisan they become,” according to the report, which is available here.

But fight over changing term limits continues. Republicans and their allies denounced the official ballot summary of Proposition 28 as biased, and while some polls show that overhauling term limits has public support, critics aren’t convinced.

Some who favored Proposition 140 at the time have since changed their minds, citing the unintended consequences of the original measure.

“The status quo isn’t working. After two decades, our term limits law needs reform. Not surprisingly, special interests are arguing for business as usual,” Dan Schnur, the former chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission wrote in the official arguments favoring Proposition 28.

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