Term limits redux: debate or deception?

The desperation of legislators to extend their careers reached new extremes with the recent introduction, and immediate revision, of an initiative to loosen term limits. The circus surrounding this initiative makes clear that the majority of legislators put their own personal careers before the needs of California.

The conventional wisdom is that the governor and Legislature are working on a combination of redistricting reform and term-limits extensions. Why are redistricting reforms so openly linked to term-limits extensions? Because the incumbents refuse to vote for a vital measure–redistricting reform–unless they get career-extending term-limits changes. The two are not naturally related.

In fact, short term limits aid increases in competitiveness and diversity that result from fair redistricting. Yet virtually every article mentions the two proposals together, because the Legislature is holding redistricting reform hostage to term-limit changes.

After reading poll after poll showing overwhelming public support for California’s current term limits, legislators faced what should be an obvious choice. They should honestly make their case to the voters that term limits should be extended or abolished. Unfortunately, and predictably, California’s Legislature instead chose the path of deceit and trickery. Does anyone still wonder why Californians continue to hold the Legislature in such low regard?

California currently limits legislators to no more than six years of service in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. The proposed initiative extends current legislators’ terms in office to a maximum of 18 years, but legislators pitch the proposal as “shortening terms to 12 years.” The claimed 12-year limit is waived, of course, if it would impact any current legislator’s time in their current office. Any doubt regarding the dominance of legislators’ self-interest was eliminated when the initiative quickly was rewritten with the sole purpose of remove lingering doubts about state Senator Don Perata’s ability to serve a full 16 years in the Legislature.

The “12-year limit” deceit is only the first trick up the legislators’ sleeve. The second hides the proposal’s benefits to lobbyists. For years Sacramento insiders and their academic allies have claimed that term limits benefit special-interest groups. Such claims rely on the lack of long-term memory among California voters, hoping that voters will forget that special interests have dominated Sacramento long before term limits kicked in just 11 years ago. The reality is that lobbyists gradually cultivate enough influence with each legislator to guarantee a vote for their interests. Term limits upset this mutually beneficial arrangement by rotating in fresh legislators every six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.

Note, that no state legislator has been indicted for fraud since term limits took effect. Five legislators–a bipartisan coalition of three Democrats and two Republicans–were convicted of taking bribes, extortion and/or influence-peddling shortly before term limits finally cut short the cozy relations between legislators and lobbyists.

The benefits to special interests are highlighted by the support for the term-limits extension coming from two of the largest special interests in Sacramento: the California Teachers Association and the California Chamber of Commerce. Neither would back an initiative that limits its own power and influence. Each stands to benefit from long-term relationships with legislators who serve anywhere up to 18 years in office. They also will benefit from the reduced need to fund candidates in competitive open-seat primary elections every six to eight years, as under this extension incumbents can coast to re-election for over a decade.

The ultimate reality is that California’s term limits work. Term limits removed the self-proclaimed “Ayatollah of the Assembly” from office and ensured that no single individual ever accumulated such power again. Term limits increase accountability, requiring every incumbent to go before the voters in an open-seat election at least every eight years. Term limits, together with the fair redistricting plan of the 1990s, led to unprecedented increases in the number of women and Latinos elected to the California Legislature from both parties. Some of these gains have been lost to the 2001 incumbent-protection gerrymander; but good policy would be to restore fair redistricting, not to give up on term limits, too.

The duplicitous efforts of incumbents to extend their careers behind a smoke screen of false claims and misleading advertisements will fail. The voters are not as dumb as some legislators and their campaign consultants seem to believe. Redistricting reform is needed and legislators should pass it on its own. If legislators start acting in the interests of the people instead of the special interests, their approval ratings could rise and perhaps then voters might decide to extend term limits, without the need to fool them into doing so.

Pete Schabarum and Lew Uhler were co-authors of Proposition 140 and co-chairmen of the Yes on 140 campaign.

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